Monday, September 10, 2007

The starry night

One day just before the moon's last quarter, I woke up around 3:00 a.m. and looked east, toward the lake. Hours after it had risen, the moon was reflecting off the lake's surface. I wondered if anyone else was up to bask in the cold white rays, as envisioned by Anaïs Nin. Then I noticed that I could see stars, perhaps a dozen, including the three vertically aligned stars of Orion's belt. I remember them from a long-ago visit to a planetarium.

Yesterday morning, I woke up early, about an hour before sunrise, and was treated to the sight of the moon's last sliver before it becomes new, with a very bright Venus hanging nearby in the pink-and-blue pastels of the pre-dawn sky.

I've never been adept at seeing, identifying, or remembering the constellations. Orion's belt stuck with me, and of course I know the Dippers, but more than that is beyond my ken if not my interest. Astronomy fascinates me, even though I do not understand it. On days like these, though, it's best to forget the technicalities and to take in the wonder.

When I was very young, I could see perhaps thousands of stars over the darkness of the field and woods. Once or twice I may have seen the Milky Way. Then, for security reasons, a streetlight was installed near my bedroom that helped to illuminate the field and eliminate the stars. There were many left, but it was never the same.

My father grew up on an out-of-the-way Pennsylvania farm in the 1910s and '20s. I imagine that from his vantage point in time and space, he could have seen nearly everything, mostly unspoiled by light pollution. Further back in time, there were the crowded night skies of Galileo et al, and those of the biblical shepherds and wise men.

Today, however, living in the city in the 21st century, I am excited by the rare sight of a dozen stars, easily counted, and a partial constellation because that is the best I can expect.

There has been talk of taking measures to reduce light pollution as much as possible so that the wonders of the visible universe that inspired generations of scientists, philosophers, and poets are not lost to us. I think of "Krikkit," the fictional planet envisioned by writer Douglas Adams, surrounded by a gas cloud that prevents its inhabitants from seeing and knowing that they are not alone and that there is a greater universe all around them. The fewer heavenly bodies we can see, the lonelier we must feel on a subconscious level of which we are not even aware.

As I watched the dozen stars last week and the moon and Venus duet yesterday, something reassured me that even if we can't see dozens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of stars or the Milky Way as we were meant to, they are still there. Whatever we choose to do to our world, ourselves, and our future, the planets, stars, and galaxies will continue on their courses, untouched and unmoved.

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