In Lyme, New Hampshire, where I live next to a bear sanctuary, on the lip of the Great North Woods, I can count on the bright splash of the Milky Way cutting the summer sky in half. Wanting to see more, I’ve gone to meetings held by the Springfield Telescope Makers Society — a Vermont-based group that sets up homemade telescopes annually at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site — and seen the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. I’ve even since written a book of poetry that takes on the 1969 moon landing. Which is to say, when I’m invited to a barbecue, I’m the one in the far reaches of the back yard, looking up at the sky.
So my friends are always surprised when I tell them not to buy a telescope. They think they need a fancy computerized refractor to see the craters and boulders and dead volcanoes that give light and shadow to the surface of the moon. But in fact, all you need are a good pair of binoculars that cost less than a hundred dollars.
I learned this in talking to the folks at the Springfield Telescope Makers Society; for many of them it all started with binoculars, they’ve told me. One night, I took out this Nikon pair that my husband gave me when I first started bird-watching . I went into our backyard and was amazed. Nikon’s website says you can use the A211’s “from dawn until dusk” — but that’s not true; they bring the sky to life long after the sun has gone down.
In addition to being a great price for how effective they are, they’re much easier to use than a telescope. There’s a knob in the center of the binoculars that you can easily turn while holding them up, so you don’t lose what you’re looking at while bringing it into focus. My favorite place to focus is on the edge of a half-moon: you can see that it’s jagged, like if you cut a piece of Swiss cheese in half. You can also see the aforementioned moons of Jupiter (even though you’ll need a map or a star-gazing app to help you figure out where to look).
You don’t have to spend $400 on an Orion 8945 SkyQuest or the Celestron NexStar to identify stars. Though admittedly you won’t have the same window into M15 and other globular clusters. And yes, there are telescopes like the Celestron FirstScope that will only set you back forty bucks, but, of course, it’s still clunky. The beauty of binoculars is they fit right in your backpack. And you can also grab them to go bird-watching or whale-watching, or spying on your neighbors; if you happen to live next to a bear sanctuary, it can get pretty interesting.
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