Sky That We Are

This essay was originally published in The Gulch Magazine, Issue 9 July 2019

A blazing web spreads out across our country like some kind of electric Manifest Destiny, stretching from east to west. Dense lines of light have overtaken the old wild lands. Check it out if you don’t believe me. Type “light pollution map” into your favorite search engine and stare at the gradation of light. The east coast has fallen, over there we’ve painted our night skies yellow and orange with the sodium-vapor bulb. I hate to be pessimistic but it’s true. There’s barely a star to be seen over there. Sorry, your best hope for a view of the milky way is a massive power failure or a full-scale collapse of civilization.

Ever westward this voltaic Manifest Destiny rumbles, annexing the night sky with our insatiable need to hide from the dark. The net of human-generated light thins out when it finally hits the great plains. Eastern Kansas and Nebraska, somewhere around 97th meridian. Sioux City, Wichita, Oklahoma City… These are towns on the frontier. Sitting on the edge where a ghost of true night remains. West of the 97th the hunter Orion still stalks the winter sky. Bright orbs of Ursa Major and Cassiopeia chase each other around Polaris.

It is the western lands of the US where the darkness continues to be found. Places yet uncovered by the shroud of buzzing light. Outposts of false illumination are scattered across this frontier. They continue to grow, slow and almost imperceptible, like colonies on a petri dish. Denver, Salt Lake City, and VEGAS!! For Christ’s sake. VEGAS! What more needs to be said about Vegas? All glowing bubbles of fossil-burning light, spilling their electricity into the surrounding wilderness. From there their photons diffuse and dissolve into the air far from our homes and car dealerships, until all that’s left are mountains and canyons with an unobstructed view into the cosmos.

As a kid, I never got all that hubbub about the stars. I’d walk the dog through east coast suburbia after dinner and see a twinkle-twinkle here and there. But was it moving, inspiring? Did anyone spend time gazing upwards in wonderment? Did it spark verse in the soul? Hardly.

Then in third grade I got my first pair of glasses. I walked home from the eye doctor on a late spring day. Every distinct leaf on the trees was visible. I could see the lines and details separating each piece of foliage. I swear I could see the xylem and phloem from a hundred feet away. I had no idea the world was full of such detail.

The same thing happened that night walking the dog. On a quiet street, I strolled through an intersection. I stared up and there they were. Hundreds of pinpoints of true light. Suns from millions of miles away staring back at me. I now realize how dim this sky actually was, but to my naive eyes it was like learning a secret, an initiation. I laid down in the middle of the street and allowed my glaze to stream upwards—no, not upwards—but outwards, outwards into the Space which surrounds our home.

Several years later I caught another glimpse. I was a teenager in the 1980s outside a motel in northern Arizona. I wandered a few hundred feet into the desert, sat down and stared. Hungry for the faint light my pupils dilated, cones in my retina ramped up, my rods started cranking out rhodopsin, ocular pigments began snagging each and every photon. Particles of light born millions of years ago, the past traveling across time, bringing all of the memories and beauty collected along the way. The universe poured like a pitcher of clear water into my skull, filling it with vast infinite points of light and color. That was it. There’s gold up there in that sky. Gems and jewels, poems and sonnets! All for our eyes to be taking!!

Westward I fled. A nocturnal refugee. I wanted a home without an industrial light over my head. I studied the dark maps. Measured distances between glowing blobs. I found an open space, a space full of beautiful nothing, between I70 of Utah and I40 in Arizona. Two hundred and seventy miles of almost town-less wonder. A blip of yard light here, a gas station there, but mostly just wild lands of sandstone, carved by wind and water, with scattered rock art pecked by people millennia ago.

Under these dark skies I ran into other refugees, those who had fled the urban lights for sun and starlight. These were photographers, climbers, hikers, rock hounds, petroglyph hunters, all sorts of wilderness junkies. Hardly any of them fled to these regions seeking dark skies, but you’d hear it in their voices when the campfire dimmed or when they crawled from a tent in the wee hours looking for a bush with which to do some business.

With my camera I wandered these sandstone cathedrals. I’d point it across landscapes in the darkness and try to capture the night’s celestial light. The camera could see better than me. It showed me the shades and shadows cast on the ground from the Milky Way’s core 25,000 light years away. Photons only now raining gently upon our planet.

Sometimes I’d find art in this dark wilderness. Along the top of a sandstone spine I stumbled upon a ceremony frozen and etched into rock for eternity. It stretched across the patina, a journey of humans, animals and a multitude of chimera migrating across the desert varnish.

I gazed upwards into the deepening evening sky and imagined the stars beyond the scattered blue light. Eventually a point of brightness pierced the blue, high in the southeast. Soon a few more twinkled faintly to the north, the same stars beneath which these ancient artists had stood.

I sat there for the night. The sun dipped below the mesas pulling away the warmth of the day. I aligned my camera with the rock art and the milky way. The sky transitioned from daytime blue to the deep zaffre of twilight. Time deepened and the final scattered rays of sunlight vanished behind the curve of the earth revealing the darkness of space and the foreign light of suns. The stars which are always there pierced our atmosphere with their thin light.

I kept my headlamp dark, not wanting to cast unnatural light upon the panel. Leaning against cold stone, my warmth slowly sank into the rocks. Heat from the day diffused into the sky and into the space between the stars.  The night enveloped everything. The camera clicked methodically, hoping to catch the perfect moment, keeping a rhythm to the wait, a ticking clock of the spinning stars above my head. The milky way rose in the southeast, like a silent opera. It begged me to stare. My eyes hungry for its light and beauty.

When the blue gradually reappeared in the eastern sky I gathered up my things. My brain sloshing with sleepiness. With dark adjusted eyes and scattered rays of sunlight I worked my way down the ridge. The air was still and the cool quiet of morning settled heavily. The light grew incrementally with each passing step.

I have been driven to photograph rock art beneath the light of the milky way. For years I could not understand why. This was the night which inspired me. I spoke earlier of being refugees, but I now realize we, all of us, are pilgrims. We are not fleeing the light polluted urban glare but seeking the night, the stars and its vast darkness. In this seeking I think we are not only looking outwards, but also within and learning about who and what we are as humans.

In the night sky we see the origin of everything.  Hydrogen fuses into helium. Atoms coalescing into the rocky matter of our home Earth, mingling and changing via pressure and friction of stone. Geochemistry rising to biochemistry. Then something marvelous happened and perhaps unique. From this mix of atoms and biochemical reactions consciousness and awareness emerged. Art, culture, love and hate, war and tenderness, bottomless needs, dreams, and fears of humanity all manifested via this intermingling of atoms and molecules.

Our carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, everything came from the inside of those burning spheres. We are all built of atoms of stardust, everything is. But what is unique and special, is you and I know it. We contemplate it. These atoms came together and carved that art on the stone a millennium ago.  Somehow, through all of this, Meaning happened. Humanity and the stars are one and the same.

This is why we need to keep earthbound light at bay and the skies dark. We need a place we can go, a place that is not hiding from the sky. A place we can stare into space and feel the eternity of everything and remember what we are and where we came from. Too often we hide on this planet beneath a blanket of artificial light, staring myopically inward, pretending we are all that there is. We need the covering pulled aside so we can gaze outward. I am not a religious person but these dark places are my church. 

The night sky is beautiful and we are beauty staring back at itself.

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