Hot Chocolate Press author, Jerry Eckert reflects on his experiences under the night sky and the consequences of its slow disappearance.
Flames from desert-dried acacia wood pushed back the night, enfolding those of us there on the sand in succulent warmth. Flaming coals quivered orange and blue.
This fire whispered softly, exhaling resins trapped long years ago. A strenuous day hunting in the Namibian sun and wind had left my body drained. The hunt now over, my friend Helmut, the game ranch owner, and a few of his closer friends reclined around this campfire under a towering camel thorn tree. I watched their bonds renew by firelight, bonds so vital when friends live scores of miles apart across an unforgiving desert.
We spoke softly of antelope and leopards, cattle and grass, recalled hunts of prior years, and in this sere yet somehow nourishing land, we talked of rain. Spirits of Khoisan Bushmen, a part of this landscape for unnumbered millennia, seemed to swirl around us. They would have also gathered around family fires beneath camel thorn trees, their click-tongued language softened by kinship and a fire’s warmth. And they, too, would have talked of rain, the metronome of desert life. A night bird passing overhead might have seen our fire, its glow, our little circle of friends as an orange nipple on the vast black breast of Africa.
Conversations in German eddied around me; my tired mind struggled to keep up. I needed to get up and move, to shake out the kinks, to breathe some cooler air or else succumb to lethargy and sleep. From upwind, a jackal’s scent drifted across our group. Wild desert lay just beyond the firelight. Stiffly, I rose from the sand, turned my back to the fire, and walked away. Sharp, late fall air stung my cheeks. It would freeze before dawn. Warmth leaked from my jacket. The chill dragged me from my stupor, into the brilliance of a savannah night on the edge of the Great Namib Desert. My feet found ruts – an old ranch road leading out into the thorn bush – and I followed them, mostly by feel.
As I meandered along the ruts and away from the fire’s glow, a living savannah emerged from darkness.
Forms of gray and shadows replaced the black. Then came more subtle shades. Some leaves, the waxy ones, winked back at me in lighter grays while others quivered in the breeze, just silhouettes. Something small, but darker than the sand around it, scuttled away from the track into taller grasses. Now with retinas fully bathed in visual purple, my eyes replaced my toes at searching out the path.
Above, the sky radiated points of white fire. So many flickering stars – it seemed as if the whole sky were alive and dancing. The Khoisan drew creation myths from among those stars, from that giant arch of light. But the constellations up there, those they might have named, were lost to me among a million gleaming pinpoints. I wandered through that crystalline night stunned with the enormity of the southern sky, alone with my insignificance. And I found the creation story I that had come to understand, anchored and shaped anew by the mysteries of that teeming firmament overhead.
I watched the night sky a lot after that.
Back home in Colorado, we moved to a farm ten miles outside Fort Collins. My cigarette breaks took me out into the night every hour or so for years until I quit that lethal habit. Lunar phases became my metronome, marking off the seasons in 29.5-day intervals. I timed my hunts, my camping trips, by whether I wanted a full moon or darkness after sunset. One year, I watched a rare event, twin dog stars chasing the moon for a couple of nights. As I did, I recalled the Apache legend, so parallel to the Christian story. They say the Moon as virgin goddess mated with an omnipotent Sun-god, and conceived the Dog Star as their precious offspring. Another native people had found a divinity among the stars.
Then came View Point, a clot of tract homes just across the road from our farm, planted five to the acre, all uniformly painted in neutral grays and fenced so they needn’t view each other’s back yards filled with dog poop and plastic children’s gyms. My hayfield of luxuriant, hip-high Brome grass, with voles and hawks and bull snakes and a resident momma fox, gave that cookie-cutter subdivision its ironic name. I planted 40 Austrian pines up by the house to screen them out. That should have been enough. However, someone felt they needed street lights over there and someone else decided they could save some money by not shielding them. When they finished, I could count, from my front door, 52 mercury-vapor, 300-watt bulbs glowing down, and out, and up. Although View Point lay half a mile away, I could almost read a newspaper at night using View Point’s public lighting. Above these glaring blots, my eastern sky disappeared, replaced by a sickly orange glowing. The moon got through. Jupiter also made it. But Mars struggled. Most of everything else, if it lay to the east, is now only a suggestion or a memory.
As we lose our darkest skies, we have finally come to value them.
But rather like endangered species, only when they face extinction do we gather the force of public will and pool our treasure to protect them. Even then, most likely it will not be enough, nor in time. Those who care rail against the creep of “skyglow,” that dome of light seen ever more frequently over cities, rural shopping centers, sports stadia and elsewhere. Their rallying cry has become Dark Skies!, their efforts given focus through The International Dark-Sky Association, (http://www.darksky.org).
The unfathomed night sky first captured a part of me on a family camping trip in early August 1953, some 16 years before our moon landing gave everyone a new celestial perspective. In those days, camping with Dad meant hauling a trailer full of mattresses out into the Arizona desert, laying them on tarps between the cacti, and cooking hot dogs, refried beans and stick bread over a mesquite fire while coyotes sang in the distance. As we snuggled into our blankets, the Perseid meteor shower exploded across the heavens. I’d never seen anything like it and I couldn’t sleep. Next day, the newspaper called it the most intense shower of the 20th century. For hours, it seemed, I watched, entranced as the sky fired tracer bullets. I must have slept at some point because I woke around 2 a.m. looking up from my mattress at the underside of a curious javelina’s snout. For a split second, I saw a bristled nose twitching, and some short razor tusks. Then I moved, recoiled perhaps, because my startled visitor exploded through the middle of camp, knocking over our cooking gear. “What the heck was that,” came from Dad’s mattress. Perseus, the first of the Twelve Olympians of ancient Greek mythology, still blazed away, once or twice a minute.
About this time, Boy Scouting taught me the major constellations of the northern sky and some basics of celestial navigation. The Big and Little Dippers led to Polaris in the north just as surely as the sun rose in the east and moss grew mostly on the northern side of pine trees. Knowing these and a few other pointers, we could never get lost in the woods. And if we could navigate the wilderness, why not life’s trickier pathways as well? Scouting’s biggest lesson, “Be Prepared.”
My 1948 Boy Scout Handbook taught only the barest rudiments of navigating by the stars. Certainly the Spanish, the Portuguese or the Vikings had a vastly more complex knowledge of the heavens under which they sailed. But then, they also had an unadulterated night sky to guide them. Today we build our telescopes on the highest mountains, or in underdeveloped countries, or we send them into space to escape our artificial lights, the lumen waste of living.
Just how much natural light is out there in those dark skies?
The answer depends on what we mean by “light.” Interstellar dust and detritus block out much of the visible spectrum. Light that does reach us has often bounced around the universe, diffused by impacts, bent by gravity, or refracted through spatial aerosols. It arrives as a background haze, as glows and glimmers of different hues, or other subtle differences from a jet-black nothingness. However, when I see a star, its bright pinpoint fixed at some celestial coordinates, I know that bit of light came straight through the entire maze, unobstructed. There is a special bond between us, in a way, to know that my retina is the first opaque substance that tiny shaft of starlight has found in the millions of years and miles of its journey. It will also be the last. That glimmer is mine alone.
Even before the stars finally slip behind pollution’s curtain, more subtle cosmic lights will long be gone. Besides the stars, other lights we see at night form a rare brotherhood. “Airglow,” for instance, keeps the night sky from ever being completely dark. Scores of miles above the Earth, the sky teems with cosmic rays tearing through the upper atmosphere, knocking molecules apart, leaving surplus bits adrift as fractions of their former selves. The energy released by all these ions and electrons as they find new homes, reuniting with others of their kind, appears to us as light; yellow-hued for oxygen ions or blue for nitrogen.
“Zodiacal light” arrives on the bounce. Sunlight ricochets off interplanetary clouds of cosmic dust, reaching us in much the same spectrum as it left its source, but dulled and diffused by whatever light the dust absorbed. It doesn’t take much dust to bounce this light our way. Single particles, just one millimeter in diameter, scattered every 8 kilometers throughout space, would produce our zodiacal light. It must be dusty up there. Zodiacal light is more than half the total light that reaches us on a moonless night.
“Gegenschein,” literally “shines against,” is a special case. Gegenschein also bounces off of cosmic dust, but not with a glancing blow. These dust motes lie on the other side of the earth, directly opposite the sun. The sun’s rays hit them in full phase before bouncing back for our delight. Just as the light from a full moon outshines other lunar phases, Gegenschein is zodiacal light at its brightest. We see it as a hazy, softly lit circle moving across the moonless sky.
“Auroral light” draws its power from the solar wind. Incoming charged particles are snagged by earth’s magnetic field which sucks them in, spiraling down along magnetic field lines. Collisions in our upper atmosphere excite these electrons causing quantum leaps from one state to another. Then, reverting to their former state, they lose their kinetic energy gained in those collisions and it becomes shimmering light. Greens and red arise from oxygen, a pink or blue-violet tinge from nitrogen. On rare occasions, atmospheric neon throws out a waving orange curtain with rippled edges. Is it any wonder that the Cree people call the Aurora Borealis the "Dance of the Spirits?"
Vexed with the imprecision of the dark sky dialogue, the astronomer John Bortle created the Bortle Dark Sky Scale in 2001, calling attention to the growing threat of light pollution. He defined nine classes, ranging from Class 1 - “Excellent Dark Sky Site” to Class 9 - “Inner City Sky.” In Class 1, zodiacal light and gegenschein are both visible. Airglow is readily apparent. He rejoices, “If you are observing on a grass-covered field bordered by trees, your telescope, companions, and vehicle are almost totally invisible. This is an observer's Nirvana!”
Bortle’s Class 9 is a frightening portent of where we are likely headed as a civilization. His definition speaks of loss: “The entire sky is brightly lit, even at the zenith. Many stars making up familiar constellation figures are invisible, and dim constellations like Cancer and Pisces are not seen at all. - - - The only celestial objects that really provide pleasing telescopic views are the Moon, the planets, and a few of the brightest star clusters (if you can find them).”
Responding to public awareness of our vanishing dark skies, the National Park Service recently surveyed the night sky in all our parks and monuments. Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah emerged the winner, scoring 2 on the Bortle Scale. The Park Service then bestowed the name, “The World’s First International Dark Sky Park.” I camped there during the dark of the moon in March 2009. Just as in Namibia, I took an hour’s walk at midnight. And as in Namibia, the constellations were lost within the brilliant scatter overhead. Again, I was struck dumb by the enormity of it all; by the mysteries of the sky’s inner workings driven by cosmic laws so far beyond my comprehension.
But I wonder. Like an old Siberian tiger pacing out his final years in a Russian zoo, we may have already lost something forever when we have to put it on display. The title “World’s First International Dark Sky Park” is perhaps more lament than honor.
As we lose when our night sky, when Polaris slips from view, it’s more than just a Boy Scout memory flickering out. Polaris is one constant in our life, a tent peg in the firmament, a welcome friend that anchors travels through our darkness. Thus directed, we find a sense of self assurance, and find ourselves within the landscape. Without Orion, young boys won’t dream so easily of slaying beasts, and in that dream find an inner strength to face their monsters. When we have mapped the last piece of terra incognita, turned the seabed into a commodity, and waved a final farewell to Orion and Cassiopeia, king and queen of the night sky, we will have lost more than just the view. If we never stand, wide eyes cast upward, awed by the incalculable vastness out there, we are unlikely to sense what minuscule motes we really are. And if we can’t, will we then conclude our universe is bounded by a skyglow dome, and leap to the arrogant presumption that we control it all? If we do, we will then have truly lost our way.
Excerpt from the memoir Weeping Kings and Wild Boars; Moments of Magic and Sorrow in Forty Years Trying to Save the World by the late Jerry Eckert. Jerry was a professor and agricultural economist for Colorado State University for 35 years before turning his talents to writing. Read another essay by Jerry, Evening Hymn.