When was the last time you stared into the eternal? I can tell you: it was on a lonely stretch of Route 66, near the abandoned town of Amboy. Until this trip, I had never ventured much further than the Cajon Pass, so the Los Angeles light dome had washed out much of my observing. I had been attempting to really break in my telescope, and picked a rough day to do that: rainstorms rolled in throughout the night, and the temperature dropped into the 30s, freezing for a spoiled Californian.
After taking a nap in the car, I awakened to a sight that disappointed me at first: yet another cloud, stretched across the sky. But this wasn’t an earthly condensation of water. It was the shimmering light of billions of suns: our home galaxy. It was so bright, it cast shadows on the ground. I could read by its light. The feeling, witnessing this? Indescribable.
This feeling is so overwhelming because such a sight is rare. The electric era has changed the lives of humans in many incredible, life-sustaining, and enhancing ways, but it has had an unforeseen consequence: the slow yet steady elimination of the night. While we have been fighting darkness as a survival tactic for as long as we have been a species, we also needed the darkness for rest, contemplation, meditation.
Restoring the Night Sky
Consider the nighttime prayer of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Such a moment comes not in the midst of hustle and bustle, but under the eternal light of the heavens above, in the glorious, cleansing silence of the night. Our very civilization was dependent, at one time, upon a careful observation of the comings and goings of the stars. Think bigger than astrological influences on kings and sultans: agriculture would have been exceptionally difficult without regular signs to foretell seasonal changes.
Slowly, the light that had guided us out of tribal wandering bands and into settlement, civilization, and high technology has been snuffed out by that very recent stage, though not everywhere. There are still plenty of places where the stars still shine brilliantly, where we can enjoy and contemplate the spiral arms of our home island in the universe.
The efforts of countless rural residents, astronomers, naturalists, wilderness enthusiasts, and town councils have held, and in some places reversed, this slow creep: in the town of Charleston, Rhode Island, just 40 miles from Providence, the zodiacal light has returned. In West Texas, Bill Wren of the McDonald Observatory has actively worked with an unlikely ally: the rig operators of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association. Their goal? Reconsider lighting so the observation of space and the drilling boom can co-exist without additional regulation.
Go for Contemplation, Not Coercion
The dark-sky movement has its more environmentally passionate side, and this is where I diverge from them: I don’t want to shut down businesses and bully people. I want to persuade them of smarter ways to illuminate their necessary businesses and lives so that we can all appreciate something our ancestors took for granted for thousands of years. We should all have an opportunity to experience this. It is a part of who we are as a species and as a civilization.
The sky above holds certain timelessness: the light emanating from Antares left that star when the Byzantine Empire was about to fall. They are a way to contemplate ourselves, our accomplishments, our ancestors, and even those in more recent memory. When the light left Procyon, my grandmother was still alive. When it left Vega, my great-grandparents were still with us. These stars, which shine down upon us, shined down upon those we have recently lost. They will shine for some time on those not yet born. Whether or not we brighten our own patch of sky, there those shimmering balls of fusion will be.
Stars aren’t eternal, of course, but their brilliance far outlasts our own conceivable quantities of time. This connection to perceived eternity can still be grasped by even the most urban reader. On the next clear, moonless night, get in your car, and go for a drive, until you start to see that awesome band of light. Go, and embrace the night in all of its glory, all of its peace, all of its meaning.