These are the things I know about the night sky: I know where to find the Big Dipper. I know that the Big Dipper is also called “Ursa Major” because it is supposed to look like a large bear, though I can’t claim to ever have noticed a resemblance. I know that planets emit steady light while true stars flicker in and out (they twinkle, to use an infantile word I rather hate). I know how to find the North Star and how to spot Orion (it’s his belt, from which supposedly hangs a sword, though let’s be honest: dude’s probably not packing steel, ya hear me?).
I used to know more. I used to know the myths and legends and how to find the vain queen Cassiopeia. But that’s gone now, stuck somewhere in the weird and unreliable filing system of my memory.
I recently found myself staring at the stars and something funny happened: I got lost (or maybe more accurately: my ursine familiar was lost to me). I was camping in Canada, way up north on the coast of Cape Breton Island, in this beautiful place called Meat Cove, which seemed all the more lovely for its terrible name. In this remote place, few lights compete with the stars. There is no light pollution from cities, for there are no cities. There are few cars and fewer towns. When I looked up, I couldn’t find the Big Dipper. Orion seemed to have gone into hiding, shamed at being so easily overshadowed by the sheer wealth of stars. In many places in America, you can’t even see the Milky Way. Up there, you could see that pale, stagnant river of light. But it’s beauty was bland in comparison to the light show going on elsewhere. “This sky makes me stupid,” I kept saying to my boyfriend. We would go for walks in the semi-dark, and I would trip over stones because my head was turned upwards. (This happens to me a lot, actually. Even city streets are more beautiful when you look at the tops of buildings and not the trash below.) One night, I sat on a rock and stared at the sky for over an hour, just looking. Just watching. Flicker, flicker, little stars.
It’s amazing to think that this experience is so rare—yet it used to be so common. A recent article in Nautilus (one of my favorite publications) profiles an astronomer named Tyler Nordgren who is working to reestablish dark spots in national parks. He wants to make it possible for everyone to get drunk on stars, to stare at the sky until they become lost in its splendor. A fellow astronomer describes the significance of Nordgren’s work in rather romantic—but wonderfully effective—terms: “It’s also one thing all of humanity has in common. It’s the same sky in the Sahara as it is over Philadelphia. It’s also the same sky as Native Americans gazed up at 10,000 years ago. People think of light pollution as an astronomer’s concern, but Tyler helps establish this broad value, that it matters to everyone.”
Does it matter to everyone? Probably not. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t give too much thought to the stars until I found myself silenced by their brilliance. It took driving 15 hours away from home to a campground on the edge of an island for me to see why light pollution matters. It matters because there are so few things in the world that can truly induce awe (and so many things that induce aww but that’s a post for another time). I’m not very spiritual, but the closest thing I have to a religion comes from those strange moments of sublime wonderment, where I become very, very small and the world around me expands, like the universe is supposedly doing at all times, only at a far more rapid clip.
So, I do care. And maybe so should you.
(P.S. The image at the top of this post is from NASA. Taken by the Hubble Telescope, it shows a STAR FACTORY. Really, that’s what it’s called. How wonderful! Thousands of times better than “Meat Cove.”)