Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Starlight

Today's newspaper carried an Associated Press story about the town of Tekapo, New Zealand, which since 1965 has required all nighttime lighting to be "sky-friendly" in an area measuring 19 miles from town in all directions. Tekapo's original intent was to preserve the darkness, as it were, for the nearby Mount John Observatory. Ah, but the Law of Unintended Results has yielded sweet fruit again. This town of 830 people has become a "heritage park in the sky," a travel destination for "astro tourists" and anybody else seeking a clear and unimpeded view of the stars at night.

Most people don't realize how much their view of the stars at night is obstructed by haze, stray light or "light pollution," and even the light of the moon. To go camping high in the mountains during a new moon, and to wake up in the middle of the night and see a sky you've never seen before, is magical.

Beyond "magical" is "mystical," and that is to see the world around you illuminated by nothing but starlight. This has only happened to me once in my life.

About three summers ago (maybe four), I went on an overnight backpacking trip with my Boy Scouts. We camped overnight on the bare granite top of an unnamed hill in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Sometime between midnight and three in the morning, something woke me. I lay in my sleeping bag, silent and still, listening to the stillness of the world. There was no wind, not even a breeze, no airplanes flying overhead, no insects or nocturnal creatures prowling about. All the boys were silent and still in their sleeping bags.

I eased myself out of my bag and, in my bare feet, climbed up a boulder behind our camp. With no moon, and with the nearest electric light a porch light on a cabin several thousand feet below us and several miles away, the only illumination was from the stars. They shone on my sleeping boys and the surrounding terrain with a soft, even glow that sharpened every detail and cast no shadows.

I had never known starlight to be the brightest light at night. Every place I have lived or traveled, the darkness of night has been broken by fireflies, electric lights, flames, or moonlight. Even in the absence of other lights, my eyes have never adjusted to the point that I could see the world illuminated by starlight. It happened on this night.

I sat on the rock and looked at the horizon all around. Normally, the atmosphere glows where the horizon meets the sky, but on this night even the horizon was dark. The new moon was way around on the other side of the earth, competing with the afternoon sun for the attention of my friends in Singapore. It was just me and the stars.

I looked up at the sky. I saw the Milky Way as I have never seen it before, with the clouds and streaks of light crisscrossed and patterned by dark ropes and braids of spacedust. I saw the brightest stars in the sky clearly enough to make out their colors, which I've never been able to do before. I was able to see the red of Arcturus and the blue of Sirius.

As the night air gradually chilled me, I slid silently down the boulder and back into my sleeping bag, where I lay on my back looking at the stars until I drifted back into sleep.

The inhabitants of Tekapo, New Zealand, are very lucky, and the city fathers in 1965 were very wise. To see nothing but stars in the nighttime sky is truly magical, and to see the earth illuminated by only the glow of the stars is mystical.

2 comments:

jodi (bloomingwriter) said...

What a lovely post! I'm very lucky because here in the wilderness of Nova Scotia, we have awesome skies at night...especially if unimpeded by fog or overcast. The nights that are best are those showing the aurora borealis, which I can happily watch for hours. Occasionally I put on my Helly Hansen snowsuit and do just that because of course usually the best displays are on cold winter nights.

Zyzmog said...

I love standing outside on a cold winter night, watching the stars -- wrapped up cozily, as Jodi said, and clutching a mug of hot chocolate. I envy those of you who get to watch the aurora borealis.