And what of a starry night sky? Already two thirds of Americans live in places so polluted by light that we cannot see the Milky Way, and most children born in the United States today will never see this sight. What are the costs to our imagination and our spirit when we lose this inspiring view?
No one is talking about getting rid of light at night. But more and more people are discussing controlling light pollution and protecting those last few areas where we can still experience real darkness. Many of those places can be found in our western national parks, like the one I visit with Dan.
In Death Valley, our eyes go dark-adapted, good at ten minutes, even more so at 45, but then after two hours of wide-open eyes and the land with no lights, the sky shifts into focus, like an optometrist switching a lens and saying, “Better?”
Before this, there were stars, but now there are stars upon stars and a sense of stars you can’t yet see. “In the city, you will never see like this,” Dan says. “Even out here it takes patience, and we expect instant results. People drive out from Las Vegas because they hear there’s a star party and say, ‘Now show me the night sky; I got about five minutes.’ ”
We climb from Eureka and drop into Crankshaft Junction, Dan saying, “These are the last of the wild roads” and “We’re in the blackest part of the map.” We are within a few miles of the Nevada border, the Los Angeles light dome blocked by mountains, but not the faint dome from Las Vegas, some 160 miles away southeast. I have been at the center of that, and now I am at the center of this—from the brightest spot on the map to one of the darkest.
This dark land. The way I no longer expect to see any lights. The way the dark feels both comfortable and comforting as the night goes on. “Lots of amateur astronomers don’t care as long as they can see the sky,” Dan explains, “but to me, it’s the land and the sky together that makes this experience unique in the West—the wild land and the wild sky.” And then, speaking of the Night Sky Team, “That’s what we’re trying to preserve, the ability to see and appreciate the natural night landscape.”
At the crest between valleys, I take out binoculars, and in turn they take my breath, multiplying the number of visible stars tenfold. I feel as though I’m falling, have to pull away to find my balance in the dark. The ground on which I’m standing, the cloth of stars above. The great nebula in Orion’s Belt, the Pleiades, Jupiter so bright and clear it makes me laugh. And then here comes Sirius. The brightest star we ever see, and—because it’s so low, the atmosphere a prism—flashing like a pinwheel sparkler, green and red and purple and blue. Then superbright shooting stars, like green-yellow flares falling from the sky. And then for me, for the first time, the Andromeda galaxy in clear detail—the most distant object we can see without a lens, at two million light-years away—the photons that have been traveling toward earth all this time now touching the back of my eyes.
The turning earth, the presented universe—in the dry desert air the stars come down to the horizon, in the west blinking out as they fall from the world’s edge, and in the east blinking on, as though lit and set into the sky by some happy wild creatures just on the mountain’s other side.