Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Wednesday Wisdom: Dark Skies Over Harmony


I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.  Vincent Van Gogh


One of the wonderful things about living in Harmony, Florida, is that the community is dark-sky compliant. We like the fact that all street lights, porch lights, and other lamps in town are hooded and pointed downward so that light pollution doesn't obstruct our view of the stars at night.

It's a delightful experience to take a late-hour walk in the neighborhood on a clear and moonless night. Familiar constellations smile down like old friends and the Milky Way beams a welcoming invitation to explore its gauzy pathway. There seems to be no limit to the breadth and depth of the firmament above us.

I grew up, perhaps like many people my age, taking dark skies for granted. On our farm in New Mexico we saw the stars every night, and when we went camping, we literally slept under a blanket of stars.

My most glorious memory of the heavens happened while camping on a plateau at almost 12,000 feet above sea level near Flint Lake in the Weminuche Wilderness in southwest Colorado. When the sun went down and night settled in, the light of the stars became so brilliant we could see everything around us clearly, even our own shadows on the ground. With clear skies, rarified air, and no man-made lights within a hundred miles, we could see tens of thousands more stars than were visible at sea level. So incredibly beautiful!

In the modern world, nighttime views of the cosmos are a fragile blessing. A majority of Americans today no longer have an unobstructed and undiluted view of the heavens. In many places, seeing more than a few stars is often impossible. In most of the world's large urban centers, stargazing is something that only happens at a planetarium.

In fact, when a 1994 earthquake knocked out the power in Los Angeles, many anxious residents called local emergency centers to report seeing a strange "giant, silvery cloud" in the dark sky. What they were really seeing - for the first time - was the Milky Way, long obliterated by the urban sky glow. Even in Harmony, the bright glow of Orlando, 20 miles to the northwest, blots out that sector of the nighttime sky for us.  

Does being able to see dark skies really matter?

Can the ability to look up and see the heavens make a difference in our lives? A number of scientific studies have shown that the lack of nighttime darkness has serious effects on the health of humans, animals, and plants. See

But in terms of our lifestyles and our sense of well-being, how are we affected? What is missing in our lives when we can't - or don't - see the stars? Cartoonist Bill Watterson once posed an interesting and thought-provoking question:

If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, would they live a lot differently?

How might it change us and the way we experience life if, instead of spending our evenings looking at television sets, computer screens, and bright city lights, we could view Orion, the Big Dipper, the North Star, and the Milky Way?

Would we see our place in the universe in a different way if our nightly view included thousands and millions of stars and planets, and we took the time to contemplate the implications of the vastness of the universe we live in?

How would our perspective on the cycle of life and our role in it be affected by paying attention to the giant kaleidoscope of the heavens, spinning constantly, season by season?

Does being able to see dark skies really matter?

I cannot speak for others, but I know that for myself, seeing the stars on a moonless night gives me a sense of both being grounded and being part of something infinite - as indeed I am. Immersing myself in the real world by gazing into a canopy of heaven's light is far more exhilarating than any virtual or electronic world I might pretend to be a part of.

Hooded street lights in our little nature-friendly community may seem to be a small thing, but it is in fact a big deal. Having an unobstructed and undiluted view of the heavens reminds me of my place in the universe. Without the connection that a dark-sky stroll gives me to something so grand and glorious, I could easily forget who I really am.

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