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  • Night MovesPreserving the Sublime at One of the Darkest Places in America
  • Amanda Petrusich (bio) and
    Photograph by GARY HONIS

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Every civilization we know of has devised a system—scientific, religious, numinous, what have you—to make sense of the night sky. The mystery of what’s up there, where it came from, and what it means has long transcended geographic and cultural barriers. It has been inherited and puzzled over for generations. Questioning the universe’s origins and its contents feels innate to our humanity; those questions might be the most human ones we have.

Due to pervasive light pollution—glare from excessive, misaimed, and unshielded night lighting—80 percent of Europe and North America no longer experience real darkness. By extension, these populations possess a compromised understanding of the night sky as vista, a shifting landscape of constellations and planets, as multitudinous and astounding as any Earthly terrain. For anyone living near a major metropolis, a satellite image of the Milky Way is even more abstract and antipodal than a Brontosaurus skeleton posed in a museum: We understand it to be a document of something true, but that understanding remains purely theoretical. In 1994, after a predawn earthquake cut power to most of Los Angeles, the Griffith Observatory received phone calls from spooked residents asking about “the strange sky.” What those callers were seeing were stars.

I grew up in a small town in the Hudson River valley, about an hour north of New York City. Like most children, I regarded the night sky (or what I could see of it) with extraordinary wonder. I understood that nobody could say for sure what was out there. Little kids are often frustrated by the smallness of their lives, in part because the imagination-to-agency ratio of the average toddler is roughly infinity to one. As a child, you can conjure complex, unbound, spooling worlds, but in your own life, you are largely powerless to make significant moves. Looking up, the tininess I felt was validated, confirmed, but it no longer felt like a liability. If the night sky offers us one thing, continuously, it is a deeply liberating sense of ourselves in perspective, and of the many things we can neither comprehend nor control.

“I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth,” Thoreau wrote in 1856. He understood heaven and Earth as separate, but still in some essential conversation with each other—as if to receive one without the other was to misunderstand both. But how can we know a heaven if we can barely see it? What happens when mankind divorces itself from a true experience of the cosmos, separating from the vastness above, taming it by erasing it? If you keep distilling the problem—boiling and straining—it becomes wholly spiritual. Thoreau’s wanting feels important, imperative. Humans have lived and evolved under the stars for millennia. It isn’t unreasonable to think that some part of us is designed to orient around them, to learn from them, and that we are right now failing this part of ourselves.

In 2001, the amateur astronomer John Bortle devised a scale to measure relative darkness. His classifications range from “Inner-City Sky” (Class 9), in which the only “pleasing telescopic views are the Moon, the planets, and a few of the brightest star clusters (if you can find them),” to a sky so dark “the Milky Way casts obvious diffuse shadows on the ground” (Class 1). Most North Americans and Europeans live under Class 6 or 7 skies, in which the Milky Way is undetectable and the sky has been smudged by “a vague, grayish white hue.” In that kind of night, a person can wander outside, unfold a lawn chair, open a newspaper, and recite the headlines, if not the stories.

Darkness is a complicated thing to quantify, defined as it is by deficiency. In addition to the Bortle scale, scientists often use photodiode light sensors to measure and compare base levels of darkness by calculating the illuminance of the night sky as perceived by the human eye. Unihedron...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2154-6932
Print ISSN
0042-675X
Pages
pp. 30-43
Launched on MUSE
2016-07-09
Open Access
No
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