Stars and Stamps



One of 2016’s most popular Forever stamp sets was the National Parks set, with the stunning view of star paths over Mount Rainier being the stand-out image; this beautiful photograph made the cover of the official USPS 2016 Forever Stamp Yearbook. Astrophotographer and astronomy educator Matt Dieterich, who took the photo, talked to us about how this beautiful stamp came about.



Past and Present (PP): First of all, tell us a little bit about how you got started with astrophotography.

Postmaster General Dedicates National Parks Stamps: Special Dedication Ceremonies at 14 Locations Including Simultaneous Live Webcast from MD/VA Assateague Island National Seashore. Matt Dieterich, photographer of Mount Rainier National Park Stamp.Matt Dieterich (Matt): I began taking astrophotos in 2007 as a 16 year old in high school. My curiosity for the night sky was jump-started after taking an astronomy class in high school, thanks in part to a passionate and motivating teacher, Mrs. Batson from North Hills Senior High in Pittsburgh, PA. Even though my grades weren’t the best in her class, I was eager to learn about the constellations and night sky in the planetarium we had at school. That year in high school, I received a small telescope from my parents, but I wanted to show people what I was seeing through the telescope. I learned that connecting a camera to the telescope was a great way for me to share astronomy with others.



PP: How did you get started in astronomy education and outreach? Why is astrophotography an effective form of outreach for you?

Matt: For the last 10 years, the goal of my photography has been to use the images as astronomy education tools. I shared the photos with friends, family, my teachers, and on various astronomy forums online. I loved showcasing beautiful objects in the night sky that the human eye cannot see. For me, astrophotography is an incredibly effective outreach tool because it gets people excited about science. I am thrilled seeing how inquisitive people are about the photos, especially kids, during outreach presentations. Simply put, astrophotos spark creativity, curiosity, and inspiration for learning. As a firm believer in education by hands-on activities, astrophotography is a perfect way to get kids involved in science.



PP: How did this photo go from your camera to being on a stamp?

stamp setMatt: When I took my camera out after teaching an astronomy program at Mount Rainier National Park in June 2015, my goal was not to capture an image for a stamp. I drove down to Reflection Lake and setup my camera, tripod, and shutter release cable to capture a timelapse video. The Northern Lights were active that night, a rare event which happens maybe once every couple years at Mount Rainier. Weeks later I edited the timelapse video into my first star trails photo. This type of image is a great beginner way to capture the stars. I joke now realizing that my astronomy teacher in high school told me to try that technique 10 years ago when I started astrophotography… I guess I am glad I waited to create my first star trails under the right circumstances!


Serendipity connected me with a person in Washington D.C. looking for a national park night sky photograph to be on a Forever Stamp collection celebrating the upcoming National Park Service 100 year anniversary. My boss forwarded me the email from that person seeing if I had any astrophotos to submit to her that I shot from Mount Rainier. I gave her a link to my online gallery and she immediately fell in love with the Northern Lights star trails over Mount Rainier. A few days later I had confirmation that my photo would be on a stamp, which I had to keep a secret for 8 months until the official USPS press release.



PP: We are based in Washington, so of course we’re thrilled to see one of our most recognizable parks featured on a stamp. What was your favorite part of working at and photographing Mount Rainier National Park?


Matt: My favorite part about working at Mount Rainier National Park was sharing the natural resources with visitors. Everyone I was able to spend time with at the park was enthusiastic and connected to nature, which for me is a huge aspect to living a healthy life. Having lived in a big city my whole life, I very much enjoyed how quiet the park was as well. One joy of the National Parks is that they are preserved regions where nature can be observed and experienced with minimal impact of humans.Thanks to the quiet nature of Mount Rainier, time seemed to slow down and I was able to live fully in the present moment, a certain kind of peace I have been striving to find.



Photo credit Matt Dieterich

As a photographer, living inside the park for 3 months helped me connect to the landscape. I was able to plan certain shots and wait for the weather to create the conditions that made for a unique photo. For instance, being at the park allowed me to create my first Astronomy Picture of the Day photo of the Perseid Meteor Shower from Sunrise, and of course the Northern Lights display seen in my Forever Stamp at Reflection Lake. In my experience, landscape and astrophotography require “being in the right place at the right time,” which means being on location at Rainier for months helped me create some incredible photos.



PP: Do you think it’s significant to have astrophotography represented on something as ubiquitous as a stamp? How does that advance your goals for education and outreach?


Matt: Having astrophotography represented on a stamp is huge. In today’s society, we have lost our connection to the night sky because city lights block out faint starlight. Sharing images that spark curiosity about what the night sky looks like away from bright city lights is something I care deeply about. I have used my stamp to help advocate for the protection and conservation of dark night skies during all my outreach programs. Most importantly, I showcase my work to raise awareness for reclaiming the night sky if we properly light our cities at night. I want my work to spark an emotional connection in the viewer. If we are not emotionally connected to the night sky like our ancestors were, will we want to become stewards of that resource?



PP: Finally, what’s it like to see your work on a real US stamp, and then on the Forever Stamp Yearbook?

Matt: For me, seeing my work on a stamp is humbling, but I know there’s more I need to pursue via photography. Having my photo on a stamp taught me that the public views astrophotography as art, something they want to hang on their wall and enjoy for years to come. Little did I know a hobby of mine that started in high school would turn into a lifelong pursuit of sharing my passion for science and the outdoors with others through astrophotography.


Ironically, my I had no clue my stamp made the Forever Stamp Yearbook cover until a week ago. My high school chemistry teacher who I stay in touch with sent me the email link. I was shocked, and of course humbled again by the fact that the image is so well received.



You can find Matt’s work online here, complete with prints to order. He is also on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Native American Arrowheads

Given the wide variety of Native American tribes, practices and rituals, this article alone gives not nearly enough information to include all the intricately varying artifacts out there.  However, some basic information is valuable to anyone interested in collecting these relics.

Arrowheads constitute a significant branch of Native American artifacts.  Arrowheads come in a surprising number of shapes, forms and types of stone.  They vary based on the tribe and the area they lived in, depending on their needs and the materials available.  Common materials used were stone, horn and bone before the introduction of metal by Europeans in the 1500’s.  As hand-made weaponry, arrowheads are important archaeological artifacts, marking technological advances in human civilization.

The size and shape of the arrowheads were determined by combined intended purpose of the arrow and the skill of the weapon maker.  Attributed to the Woodland phase of North American history, arrowheads typically date back to about 3,200 to 1,000 years ago.

Native Americans used arrowheads for hunting. They strapped the arrowheads to long sticks or staffs using twine or rope.  Different arrowheads were used for different game and as they advanced, unique designs improved their functions.

Native Americans greatly honored the animals they hunted. When they killed an animal in the hunt, they said a prayer for its spirit and paid respect by putting every part of the animal to use.  Because of this spiritual aspect of hunting, it’s best to avoid artifacts from Indian burial grounds, if you believe in that sort of thing.  (The angry spirits are not worth it).  But with a little luck and patience, you might be able to find an arrowhead yourself if you live in the right area of the United States!

Traveling with Art: Mount Shuksan, Washington State


On the west side of Washington State, Mount Shuksan has become a beloved mountain of the Pacific Northwest. It’s one of the most visited and photographed in the world; the artist Banksy even used it in a piece in Palestine.


This particular piece that you see above is by the artist Laurie Wells, titled “Autumn at Mt. Shuksan.” Its name “Shuksan” comes from a Lummi word meaning “high peak”. It’s a non-volcanic peak and makes for a stunning, almost intimidating view. The huge mountain has made many best-of lists, including “Washington’s Highest Peaks” and “Great Peaks of North America”.



A view of the mountain from Baker Lake. By Lhb1239 on Wikimedia, CC 3.0

“Mt. Shuksan epitomizes the jagged alpine peak like no other massif in the North Cascades…Shuksan is one of the finest mountaineering objectives in the North Cascades and its reputation is certainly deserved” – Fred Becky, Cascade Alpine Guide : Rainy Pass to Fraser River


It’s common to see photographs with the mountain’s reflection in Highwood Lake near the Mount Baker Ski Area.


The mountain also has its own waterfalls: Sulphide Creek Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in North America, along with four other tall waterfalls.


It’s a paradise for hikers, to be sure — not to mention clearly popular among the artistic crowd! This Pacific Northwest monument is sure to impress.


Have you ever visited Mt. Shuksan? What did you think?



Audubon and his Birds of America

You may have seen them around — beautiful illustrations of birds in every imaginable pose, giving prime examples of American wildlife. They were created by John James Audubon, a man who lived in the 19th century and redefined the quality of nature illustrations. But how did Audubon reach this point of success?

John James Audubon was born in what is now Haiti. He grew to have many interests and hobbies as he got older, which included playing the flute and violin, riding, fencing, and dancing. But most of all, he loved walking in the woods and drawing pictures of nature’s curiosities.Audubon_SHSND-4272

His father wanted him to be a seaman, but John soon found that the sea made him seasick and the technicalities of navigation did not do well for him.

In 1803 his father gave him a fake passport and shipped him to America to avoid his enlistment in the Napoleonic War.

When Audubon got to New York City he caught yellow fever and was placed in a boarding house run by Quaker women. There he learned English and found himself in his own personal paradise: “Hunting, fishing, drawing and music occupied my every moment; cares I knew not, and cared naught about them.”Audubon-CanadaGoose

His time in this natural paradise jump-started his interest in studying American birds, and eventually he molded this fascination into a business. He built up many bird drawings over the years. To produce the illustrations, he first killed the birds then arranged them in natural poses (unlike other ornithologists who put them in stiff, formal poses).11_12_audubon25_1000pxh

When he was 41, with his wife’s support, Audubon brought his bird illustrations to England. The illustrations received high praise. As he toured around England and Scotland he got the nickname “the American woodsman” thanks to his fascinating images of nature in America.Audubon-Flamingo

Audubon’s prime goal in coming to Europe was to find an engraver, and after some trial and error he found a London engraver named Robert Havell Jr., who copied Audubon’s watercolors onto copper plates. The engravings formed the book called Birds of Americawhich became critically acclaimed with a wide following, including from royalty.

The book contains illustrations of over 700 North American bird species and is widely considered to be the best picture book out there.

Audubon had spread his love of birds to the public and reached a level of success that he had not dared to imagine.