WITHOUT STARRY NIGHTS, DO PEOPLE FORGET HOW TINY THEY ARE?By Dave Wielenga
This is the time of year our eyes look to the night sky again, as we did through most of history. But it’s only for a few days, and the sky isn’t exactly what we’re looking for or at. At this time of year, it’s colorful balls of fire that catch our eyes–Fourth of July fireworks—while the blackness of the night sky is little more than a good background.
The night sky used to provide the whole show. Actually, it still does. Most of us just can’t see it, anymore. The spectacular show of innumerable stars, twinkling and shooting and doing it far beyond our ability to imagine, has become almost invisible—washed out above most cities by the intense glow of our raging urban bonfires.
Filmmaker Ian Cheney made that point to NPR reporter David Greenewhile during an interview that I heard Sunday, and it not-so-surprisingly turns out he makes that point and many others even more clearly and effectively in a film titled The City Dark, which debuts Thursday night on the PBS program, Point of View (POV).
Cheney won a Peabody Award for his 2008 film, King Corn, which explored the powerful role the corn industry plays in our diets and our politics. The City Dark is much more personal—I’m assuming that’s true, based on the interview, in which Cheney reflects upon changes in his behavior since moving from the starlit nights of rural Maine to Washington, D.C.
“I feel that I’m looking down more,” Cheney told Greene. ”And some of that is just dodging cars and traffic and people on the city streets. But it’s also, I think, fairly metaphorical for becoming a little bit more self-obsessed. So, it really resonated with me when I spoke to astronomers and other thinkers who were suggesting that in losing the night sky, we’re not only losing something beautiful, we’re losing this reference point, a sense of perspective. And to think that most kids now will grow up without that perspective, without a sense of our place in space.”
The City Dark has already been especially personal for me. In fact, as I listened to Cheney’s observations on the radio, I was both startled and somehow reassured by how similar they are to the feelings that developed at this time of year 13 years ago—July 4, 1999—when I was part of a small group—two adults, three children—that spent a week vacationing in a trailer parked on a remote mountaintop in Northern California.
Here’s what I wrote about it the next year, in the May 4, 2000, edition of OC Weekly:
WE TRAVELED UP CALIFORNIA’S SPINE like a blissful sensation, driving all night, north on Interstate 5 almost to Oregon, so high it seemed we just might reach out and touch the stars. Yes, the stars were still up there, still everywhere, just as luminous as we remembered—even more numerous than the streetlights that blot out most of them down in Southern California. And all that spilled-sugar glitter still originated millions of light-years away, far beyond not only our reach, but our reason. That hadn’t changed, either. As always, our attempts to comprehend what we were seeing didn’t get anywhere. We had to be content—and, eventually, grateful—just to watch the stars, just to consider them and, inevitably, to be justly humbled by them. It was more than enough.
Starlight became a highlight of our summer vacation. From the back porch of a ramshackle mobile home perched on a mountaintop, eight miles of unpaved road above the gold-rush town of Weaverville, we stared in dumbfounded reverence as each grand and dazzling day was absorbed into the countless hot little dots of eternity. The stars flickered like old memories—which, of course, is the very definition of their light. The little beam of Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth, takes 4.3 light-years to get here. The soft sprinkle of Andromeda, the nearest spiral galaxy, travels 3 million light-years before we see it. [Update: On May 31, 2012, astronomers using the Hubble telescope confirmed that the Andromeda galaxy and our galaxy, the Milky Way, will collide in four billion years.] By the time starlight arrives, the stars that emitted it may not even exist anymore. As we sat on the porch of that old trailer, on that mountaintop, staring skyward, somebody remarked that we were actually reliving ancient history
It felt more like fourth grade to me. Fourth grade is when I first studied California history and learned about gold-rush towns like Weaverville, which was founded in 1850. Fourth grade was when I began to appreciate the implications of a light-year, the nearly 6 trillion miles that light travels—at 186,282 miles per second—in one year. And fourth grade was followed by the summer that included the warm evening I lay alone on the back lawn of my uncle John’s house in Anaheim, after all the other kids had gone inside, and lost myself looking into the sky at all the stars.
In the mid-1960s, lots of stars were visible above Anaheim. The city was still wore garlands of sweet-smelling orange trees. There were groves at both ends of my uncle’s home on Ricky Avenue, close enough to Disneyland that we watched fireworks from the front yard. There were many more throughout Orange County, huge swaths of trees with dark-green leaves that after sunset seemed to turn blacker than the night, as though deferring to the celestial extravaganza above.
But as I lay on my back that night, breathing in the friendly fragrance and listening to the familiar voices inside the house and floating off toward the twinkle-twinkle of the stars I’d learned to love in nursery rhyme, my most basic perspective unexpectedly shifted. Suddenly, my sense of my place and my importance changed. From the center of a carousel of my own worldly desires and concerns, I was whisked to the edge of a cosmic thrill ride that was speeding in unknown directions and with unknowable purpose. I thought I could feel the planet move faster and faster, that my body was being pressed against the little patch of back lawn by the force of this movement. Then I began to feel myself getting smaller and smaller.
But the sensation was not so much that I was shrinking as that Earth itself was being left more and more alone as the boundary of the ever-inflating sky raced away. The universe was expanding before my eyes. As it did, my specific, Catholic-school God was shattered, transforming into those countless sparkling pieces of light above me. Everything I had ever assumed was simultaneously validated and rendered indefinable. I thought I saw things moving and sensed things happening, but I knew that all of it was occurring in places so far away—and getting so much farther away with each moment than I could ever travel in a lifetime—that I realized I could never know it. Yet, as insignificant as I felt, I also sensed that I was known and being watched by all that I could never know or see. I wished I hadn’t stayed out in the back yard when everyone else went inside.
And as I got to my feet and ran toward the house, I knew that the experience I’d just had is the reason everybody on Earth does everything they do every day—filling their time, trying their best not to think too much about how they came to be in all this inspiring, horrifying, unanswered space. I realized that this is the eternal condition of the human race—terrified yet mesmerized by its unknown fate. Staring, wondering, looking away, but unable to resist looking back, again and again.
“You’ve hit the nail on the head,” says Bob Gent, his warm voice pouring reassuringly through the telephone from his home in Virginia, where I’d called after returning from my vacation in northern California. “That is exactly why I do this.”