Light Pollution

Verlyn Klinkenborg has something to say about what’s happened to our view of the stars at night…He starts out this way…

If humans were truly at home under the light of the moon and stars, we would go in darkness happily, the midnight world as visible to us as it is to the vast number of nocturnal species on this planet. Instead, we are diurnal creatures, with eyes adapted to living in the sun’s light. This is a basic evolutionary fact, even though most of us don’t think of ourselves as diurnal beings any more than we think of ourselves as primates or mammals or Earthlings. Yet it’s the only way to explain what we’ve done to the night: We’ve engineered it to receive us by filling it with light.

My wife and I are always fighting over the amount of light we have spilling through our house and yard at night. Sherry can’t see in the dark and I have cat’s eyes, so the light she leaves on in the hall drives me to distraction all night long…Verlyn ends his essay with these words…

Living in a glare of our own making, we have cut ourselves off from our evolutionary and cultural patrimony—the light of the stars and the rhythms of day and night. In a very real sense, light pollution causes us to lose sight of our true place in the universe, to forget the scale of our being, which is best measured against the dimensions of a deep night with the Milky Way—the edge of our galaxy—arching overhead.

Light Pollution — National Geographic Magazine.

Last week when we were in Fredericksburg at Deer Ridge, the nighttime sky field was towards the north. Having spent over half of my life to the south of Houston with a nighttime sky obliterated to the north by the city glow of Houston, I was confused by the constellations I was seeing from the front porch as we sat enjoying the view.

On the nights I spend out in my backyard looking at the stars, I am looking south out over the Gulf of Mexico. So the stars and the constellations in the southern sky are familiar. But when standing in front of that porch trying to place some of the stars and especially the constellations I found myself disturbed in a way I haven’t been in a very long time.

The Seven Sisters

Even the the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters I love so well in the winter sky were playing games with me. As they rose in the east just about sundown each night they would be to dim to make out when we looked at them directly, only when we looked away would they swim eerily into view. Try as I would I could not quite identify the Sisters as the same stars I would visit with on cold winter nights in my own backyard. It was only when I pulled up a star chart on the computer that I was able to name the girls that were my companion on all of those other winter nights…

As for the Milky Way, the last time I recall seeing that splash of stardust stretching across the sky was back in the mid 90’s on a camping trip to Lake Whitney State Park. Sherry and I left the kids at the campsite playing cards and wandered down to the shore of the lake on a moonless night when the starlight was bright enough to guide our way. The park was deserted, our family was the only campers there in the middle of the week. We lay out on a cement picnic table enjoying the heat at our backs from the days sun while we were awed by the view above our heads. It felt like we were floating through space with nothing between us and the stars…The glow of the Milky Way burned across the sky.

The Milky Way Over Death Valley

As a child, my grandparents lived west of Houston about 40 or so miles. In those days those miles were mostly occupied by small farms and ranches. At most, the houses in those days may have had a single outdoor lightbulb mounted to light a portion of the yard. Most of the time though they were dark. After supper each night we would all pull out the lawn chairs from the back porch and find a clear spot to sit and watch the stars come out. Grandpa would tell his tales and Grandma would set the record straight and we would lay there and ooh and ahh the shooting stars or chase fireflies to put in jars by the bed. Those are some of my fondest memories of growing up…

* Photos above from Wikipedia.

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2 thoughts on “Light Pollution”

  1. I tried taking a picture while Whitley and I were in Louisiana this weekend, but it didn’t come out. It was the milky way from one horizon to horizon. Next time I will use my camera and not my phone.

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