Before I go, I have something to say

Celestial Navigation

Every night, when I go into the darkened kitchen to get my cat’s bedtime treats, I see a bright light coming in the east window. I don’t know the people who live over there, but I’m sure they put up this security light for, well, security. So I found it amusing to read, in Paul Bogard’s book The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, that criminals appreciate it when a house they want to steal from is well lit. It lets them see if the coast is clear.

I don’t begrudge my neighbors’ desire for security. It’s funny, because on the other side of our block – the side where the street is – it’s dark at night, since there is only one streetlight. The block stretches from Loras to University, but we get one just light, and one fire hydrant.

The more I read of Bogard’s book, the more grateful I am to live on a block that actually darkens after sunset. Sure, people leave their porch lights on, and this time of year, certain houses are lit up like an 80-year-old’s birthday cake. It’s still dark enough, even with that insecurity light blazing, to see Orion or the Big Dipper from our patio.

Those are among the brightest stars, but there are so many more out there – several hundred billion in our home galaxy, the Milky Way. It’s still possible to see a great swath of the Milky Way, but first you have to find a truly dark place, unpolluted by city or highway lights. Researching his book, Bogard met a man in Paris who told him, “For the amateur astronomer, the most important instrument is not the telescope, but the automobile, because you need a car to drive somewhere dark enough to see anything.”

Paris may be “the city of light,” but at night, what you’re going to see is the artificial light anchored on the ground, aimed at buildings and boulevards, spoiling the view of the heavens. And let’s not even talk about Vegas.

I got to thinking about this the other night when my yoga class was packing up its mats to go out to the parking lot at Mt. Carmel. Our instructor reminded us the moon would be full, so we should look for it. There it was, impossible to miss as we walked outside. Rising over the river, it was as round and white as a perfectly rolled pie crust. A few shreds of cloud only made it look brighter.

My daughter and I had seen an equally impressive moon the month before. Driving back from Madison, she caught a glimpse in her rearview mirror. Interrupting our conversation about the election, she said, “Mom! Turn around! The moon!” I did as I was told, and was rewarded with a view of that amazing orb we call a harvest moon, huge and orange.

She and I are both librarians. I told her about the time someone asked me why the moon looks that way this time of year. It was 1986, and I had no Internet to provide an instant (and undependable) answer, so I picked up the phone and called the Denver Museum of Natural History. I was living in Colorado, after all, and they have some terrific museums. A scientist on the other end explained that it has to do with the path the moon takes in autumn, as well as changes in Earth’s climate. My patron was satisfied, and so was I. All these years later, Allison and I knew the moon would rise higher and turn into a more ordinary full moon, just as the sun changes from a big cherry-red orb at sunrise to a concentrated star too bright to look at once it ascends above the horizon.

My daughter has been in the car with me other times when the sky revealed amazing sights. At some point during the eighteen months the Hale-Bopp comet made its way past our planet, she and I took a trip to Chicago. We were on our way back, chatting about the college we’d just inspected. The sun had set and the sky grew darker than it ever does in a city, no matter its size. The first few stars began to appear as we turned toward Highway 20, and there it was: the comet, flung out in the ebony sky like a handful of jewels.

Out there in the middle of nowhere, it appeared not only brighter, but more profound. I had always thought that comets just sped by, visible only to astronomers with telescopes trained on the right pocket of space at just the right moment. This thing, this blazing phenomenon, seemed to just hang there, like a painting in the heavens, inviting us to look and look, because there might not be another until well after we were both gone.

Now we’ve landed a space probe on a comet, ready to send back data from the great beyond. No longer fearing celestial bodies the way our ancestors did,  we sit inside looking up pictures of constellations on our tablets, gazing down at our phones instead of up at the sky.

Let’s make a deal. Next spring, as soon as it’s warm and clear enough, throw a blanket in the car and grab the kids, and drive out into the country, into the deepest dark you can find. Lie down in a field and look up.  Do it soon, before our nighttime lights turn what used to inspire awe into a gray erasure, a mere smudge in the sky. There’s a heavenly show going on up there, just waiting for us to pay attention.


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