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How a bear in the sky turns maple leaves red


According to Greek myth, a bear with an unusually long tail lives in the sky. This happened when Zeus grabbed a bear by its stumpy tail and lassoed the bear into the sky, stretching its tail and turning the bear into the constellation Ursa Major.

The most recognizable part of Ursa Major is the star pattern known as the Big Dipper. You might imagine the four stars in the dipper’s bowl as the bear’s hindquarters and the three stars in the dipper’s handle as the bear’s long tail.

A Micmac story also features a bear in the sky. But in this story the three stars in the Big Dipper’s handle aren’t the bear’s tail. Instead, they are three hunters pursuing the bear.

The hunters are all birds. The handle star closest to the bowl is Robin, the marksman. The middle star in the handle is Chickadee, the cook. If you look closely, you may spot a fainter star nearby. That’s Chickadee’s cooking pot, tucked under his wing. Moose Bird lags behind the others, as the tip of the dipper’s handle.

Their hunt lasts from spring until fall. In the fall, the hunters’ arrows pierce the skin of the bear, and the blood of the bear falls to the ground and colors the leaves of autumn.

And that, say the Micmac, is why maple trees turn red in the fall.

To hear stories like this under the stars, please join us at Jordan Lake for one of our free monthly skywatching sessions (weather permitting). In addition to views through telescopes, we provide guided sky tours that usually include cultural star stories. Although you won’t see an actual bear in the sky – with or without a long tail – you can always imagine one.


Note: Longer versions of the Micmac story can be found in books such as They Dance in the Sky by Jean Guard Monroe and Ray A. Williamson, and Stars of the First People by Dorcas S. Miller. Versions of the story of Ursa Major’s long tail can be found in many places, including the book The New Patterns in the Sky by Julius D. W. Staal.

Image credit: Stellarium