Upfield Commentary – Jessica Hawke’s ‘Follow My Dust’ (Part 3)

Posted on Thu 09/30/2010 by


During the long time it took me to read all these Upfield Bony novels a second time, I learned many new things that I had not noticed the first time around. That then flowed over into the reading of this book by Hawke/Upfield. That is the reason I am expanding at length on what amounts to only a relatively short book, because some of the things mentioned here are things that have been lost over the last 8 decades since that first Bony novel, and indeed in the many more decades since Upfield first arrived here in Australia, and started his own long journey. There are things mentioned in this Hawke/Upfield book that I also learned, things that over those years have been lost, so that all we can now do is to read about them, and try and find a way how those men and women did do some of these things. Some of those things received what can only be called scant mention in this book, almost as if they were a ‘matter of fact’ occurrence, and that everybody was capable of doing it, so what I am doing here is highlighting some of those things, and expanding on them to give people an understanding of what we might consider to be something that is probably even not possible.

One of those things concerns time.


First, consider this. Imagine how difficult it would be to tell the time just by glancing up at the stars at night.

There is a short mention in this book of how Upfield, during his travels, was able to tell the time at night by looking at the stars. We read this and almost take it in without thinking twice about it. Because this was something that Upfield himself was able to do, he also had Bony able to do this as well. How easily we take something like this for granted, just reading it and accepting it.

Today, we have watches for that purpose, and you can buy a watch these days for so cheap a price that they have become almost a throwaway item. In those days, there was no such thing as a throwaway watch. Watches were expensive and made to last, and all they did do was to tell you the time at the position that you were standing upon, and, I’m sure that very few of those swagmen at that time had watches, hence, to them, there was only night time or day time. Their stomachs would have given them a general idea of the approximate time of day. From that, it only stands to reason that the swaggie had to have some form of telling the time with some degree of accuracy.

It’s not too much of a stretch then to reason that some of them could have been able to tell the time by the stars, a thing that such a minute fraction of us can do these days, it further explodes the myth of the uneducated swaggie.

It was only in the late Eighteenth Century that time became such an important thing, and then it was only because the early navigators and navigator/explorers started opening up exploration to other countries, and doing this by sea in their sailing ships. They had nothing to go by in those days, except for early astronomical data. They had to work out where they were, for purposes of navigation alone, and to do this they only had a sextant to view the stars, and thus try and plot from that where they were on the planet.

To make these plots using a sextant, they had to have a reference point.

The English were the ones to develop this ability to tell time correctly with reference to where you were standing, and John Harrison was the most important of these who gave us a way to tell the time accurately, developing a timepiece that was inherently accurate.

That is why we have longitude, something that was forever the bane of early navigators. They had to have a reference point, consisting of two things. Time at that reference point, and what the stars looked like at that time from that reference point. From this, and their viewing of the stars from where they were on their ship in the vast Oceans on the planet, they could then roughly calculate their position. This was never accurate, as the timepieces of the time were always so inherently inaccurate.

When an accurate timepiece was developed by Harrison, more accuracy came into navigation, and this happened at about the time that James Cook first discovered Australia in 1770, Cook himself being one of the early believers in this English discovery, and also one of the ones who was to test and prove it.

Because of this, we now have longitude, and all this stems from Greenwich near London. This gives us our reference point, everything radiating from this one fixed standard point on the Planet. Hence, Greenwich Mean Time, and all time is now calculated from this reference point.

Upon acceptance of this, and it took many years, all time and navigation then became an accepted thing.

These days, any fairly good wrist watch can tell you the time at any point on the planet, and this has become so common, we now take it for granted.

As early as the twenties, when Upfield was tramping the bush, telling time with the aid of a wrist watch was the province of only the rich, the only ones who could actually afford the price of any for of watch, so very few people indeed had a way of telling the time with any degree of accuracy.

In almost a single throwaway line in this book, Upfield says that he was able to work out the time from the position of the stars, and in fact, was able to do this quite accurately.

Let’s look at this in some form of detail.

The moon revolves around the earth. The earth itself rotates and  revolves around the sun. This is a tiny system at the edge of a large spiral galaxy, one solitary galaxy among the thousands that are part of an enormous universe. Standing on the surface of our Planet Earth, we can only see (and here you have to clarify that and say that this is only with the naked eye, as this is all Upfield had to go by) the tiniest portion of this vast universe. As all these ‘stars’ are so far away, they are seen to be absolutely stationary, in other words not moving in the sky, relative to the position on the Earth that you are standing upon. The only reason that they do seem to move across the sky is that the earth itself is slowly revolving.

The only bodies in the sky that can be seen to move across the astral background are the moon and the planets, and this happens over the period of night, approximately between nine and fourteen hours depending on the seasons, so you would have to stay up for most of the night to watch the moon traverse the sky, relative to the background stars.

To a lesser extent, you may also watch the planets moving across the sky, this movement being a vastly smaller incremental distance. This cannot be seen on one night but must be viewed over a long series of nights, and as an exercise for this purpose, I actually did do something of this nature, and here, I have used the planet Mars for an example. Noting its close proximity to a star or group of stars, look again on the following night and see how it has moved the smallest amount from where it was on the previous night. Over a period of time, (in my case of the example of Mars, I viewed it over a period of four months) you can see that it has moved. In the case of Mars, it moves approximately half of a degree each night.

How can you know that?

Extend your hand to arms length. Move the index finger out at a right angle from your palm. The width of this extended index finger is approximately one degree, and what I mean by that is this. From one horizon, up across the sky above your head and back down to the opposite horizon is one hundred and eighty degrees, so the point in the sky directly above your head is at ninety degrees. The width of the index finger extended  at arms length is approximately one degree. Mars moves approximately half to three quarters of one degree per night. Why I mention this is because these are the only things that appear to move in the night sky, relative to the fixed stars. Over that four month period it was easy to see Mars moving across the night sky. Every so often, you needed to change to a new ‘reference’ star, but it was plainly obvious that Mars was, indeed, ‘moving’ across that night sky.

There are other things that slo need to be taken into account if we want to understand how to tell the time from the stars.

One of these things is Precession, this being the rotation of the astral plane around a given point on the Earth’s surface and this is something that takes thousands of years to do. In actual fact, the stars are still not moving. It’s just that the axis of the earth is imperceptibly moving.

Having now said all of that, the ability to tell the time by the stars is slowly becoming a little bit more than a throwaway line that we have taken for granted.

Like some people, I can tell the exact point of true south from the night sky just by looking at the position of the Southern Cross and the Two Pointers, those two stars that point directly to the Cross, a group of stars only visible in The Southern Hemisphere, and for all you readers outside of Australia, this group of 5 stars of the main Cross is what Australia has in the main pane of our National Flag.

How you find due South from the Cross and The Pointers is by drawing an imaginary line that directly bisects the Pointers. Draw another imaginary line through the top and bottom stars of the Southern Cross. At the point that these two imaginary lines meet, drop another imaginary line directly vertically to a point on the earth’s surface. This point where that third imaginary line meets the earth is due south.

Also, like some, I can tell the approximate position of due north during the day with the aid of a watch and by noting the position of the Sun, unless it is at midday. This is also something you can even do with a digital watch, or even without a watch, providing you know the time. How this is done is like this. Point the top of the watch, (this being at the position of twelve o’clock) at where the Sun is. At a point exactly midway between twelve o’clock and the actual time shown by the hour hand is approximately due north. You can do this without wearing a watch yourself, as long as you know the correct time. Here you must remember to work on the six hours down the watch from twelve to six, (one, two, three, etc.) and for the other side of the watch, you work backwards from the twelve. (eleven, ten, nine, etc)

Conversely, it stands to reason that you could tell the approximate time without wearing a watch just by the position of the sun during daylight hours, if you know where north is. At night find due south via the Southern Cross. Mark where you are standing and draw an arrow on the ground indicting where south is. In the morning, stand on the same point and draw another line in the opposite direction of that indicated by the existing arrow pointing south, this new line then being due north. Using the opposite principle of finding north by the sun and your watch, you can then roughly calculate the approximate time. Point your imaginary twelve at the sun, and if north is then half way between twelve and the actual hour then the arrow you have drawn indicating north is half the time. For example, you point the imaginary twelve on your wrist to the sun. if the arrow you have drawn on the ground indicating north is at ten o’clock on your imaginary watch, then the approximate time is eight AM (remembering you work backwards on that side of the watch)

It all sounds relatively simple, and following some practice, it might even become relatively easy, but these days, we have no need whatsoever to do something like this.

This might be okay for daylight hours, but imagine how difficult it must have been to learn how to tell the time by the stars, having read all the above. You would have to know by heart the position of the stars for that time of the year, and knowing that, you’d also have to know how far they seem to have rotated through the sky for that night. Using the same principle that we used to track Mars across the night sky, we could realistically use this same method to tell the approximate time at night by just observing the rotation of the Earth, or, as we are stationary on a revolving Earth, we could transpose this to observing the rotation of the stars. To do this, we first must take a reference point, and to do this we would have to wait for nightfall, presuming that it is a night clear of clouds. To calculate the difficulty of using this method, we first have to know the time. To do this, we would have to calculate the approximate time during daylight hours by the above mentioned method, and then counting off the time until nightfall takes over, so we can then take a star point in the sky as a reference point, and then use the approximate time this star was first noticed. The stars then move across the sky at an approximate rate of six degrees for an hour, and here you must notice that I’ve used the word ‘approximately’, as this is only a very rough method of doing the calculation. Here, you can roughly use the width of an extended finger method I mentioned previously to calculate one degree of motion.

So, first you have to take a reference point, and to do this, it would have to be one of the first stars appearing, and therefore, one of the brightest stars. Having taken this reference point, you could then realistically come out at a later time, find the original star that you selected as a reference point, and see just how far this star has moved across the sky. Then you would need to do a calculation as to the distance that reference star has moved, and using the approximate rate of six degrees per hour, work out the approximate time. This is a very rough method, and after a lot of practice, might be able to be refined into a way of telling the time, but it could in no way be described as an accurate method, or even be done with just a short glance up at the stars. Here you have to remember that tracking Mars is a little easier, as at least with Mars, you have a reference Star point from the previous night, and using the reference point of the first star you see, you also have to remember the reference point in the sky that you first took notice of this star. This all sounds very complicated and I’ve purposely made it sound this difficult to emphasise the numerous things that have to be taken into account for what can only be described as an approximate method of telling the time by the stars. Going out into the night to check the position of the reference point, and then doing what could be an involved calculation, is not something that is just mentioned as simply as ‘telling the time by the stars’.

So, an innocuously mentioned throwaway line becomes a mathematical problem that we would now think of as being an impossible thing to do. Longitude, Precession, and all the other things come into account, and then it’s all shot to hell if it’s overcast, and what about latitude. The further south you are the more different the light is, this due to the curvature of the earth. Hence, if you were in Mount Isa in summer, the sun would be close to almost overhead. What this means is that the sun comes up and it becomes light. The sun goes down and it becomes dark. In Melbourne however, much further to the South by more than a thousand miles, the curvature of the earth comes into play. The direct light from the sun is bent by its passage through the earth’s atmosphere, hence some light gets through before the sun actually comes up, and when the sun drops below the horizon, it still stays relatively light for a further period of time, this being called twilight.

Taking all this into account, the prospect of telling the time by the stars is almost a thing as alien to us as another of those things that Upfield did, that of pushing a bike, with the pedals removed, across half the length and breadth of the continent of Australia.