Thursday, September 26, 2013

Navigating Night

“Hey, this is that place where they have the lights in the canyon right?” “No those lights are our neighbors in Tropic”--“Nah-nah they have like different colored lights between the rocks and they do a light show at night” “I’d certainly hope not”--“Yea…I was here a few years ago and I coulda sworn I seen that here” “When you saw this are  you sure you weren’t actually underground in South Dakota? Wind Cave lights their cave up with purple and blue lights…”--“Nah it was here…” I tug on my beard a bit and when a silence of adequate length and awkwardness has passed, he continues; “…well you guys should do that” and turns around to peruse our rack of T-shirts advertising “dark skies” at Bryce.

Of course I was lying, we do have a light show at Bryce Canyon every night; fusion powered, no less. When the moon is out, we even light the rocks up too. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the night sky at Bryce almost every night for the past month. Some nights the clouds blocked out the stars and the night was so dark that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face; other nights the moon was full and bright enough to hike down in the canyon by. The other nights, I would drive out to Bryce or Yovimpa point and walk along the rim in the cool silvery light of the milky way arcing straight overhead. 
Sometimes my friend and co-volunteer KL would join me. We were both working on astronomy lectures that we would be giving to visitors for the first time before the end of the month and the stargazing helped remind us what we were trying to promote. Not just promote, but protect. We had both seen the case made countless times; shield your lighting, help the animals, leave the sky uninhibited for others to enjoy. Those arguments tell you why it is important to preserve the dark sky; but I think if one doesn’t already have a reason to care about a dark sky then no argument can sway them.

KL and I both set out to make programs that would help people discover their reason, trusting that the rest would follow. Despite this similar goal; our programs were quite the opposite of one another. In her program she quoted poetry about the night sky and displayed images that showed what a source of inspiration the night sky had been to humans. She showed that appreciation of the stars and planets and galaxies wasn’t a purely academic pursuit. My program on the other hand was almost entirely academic. I thought if I could just show people how fascinating the workings of the universe were then they would want to see it for themselves and once they saw it for themselves they wouldn’t want to give that view up again when they left the park and went home. In the end, we learned from each other. I decided to include a personal section at the end of the program and close with a few words I wrote about why the night sky is important to humans on a personal, emotional level:

“Man has discovered just a few blank canvases in the universe. Cavernous receptacles into which he can project his hopes, fears and desires. The dark caves where paintings show the joy of the successful hunt, the fear of the teeth and claws of the predator and the longing for companionship. The sea, with its elusive 12 mile horizon and its fickle churning and breaking, personified in Poseidon and countless other thalassic gods and goddesses that reflect their human creators. And the stars that have been perhaps the greatest of shores over which human thought and emotion have washed. Every culture has stories tied to the position and motion of the heavens. The simple patterns of the stars have been invested with the characters of these peoples in the form of hunters and beasts and women. It’s no wonder that so many people look to the sky when they look for their God; where else would God exist but amidst the great gallery of such potent dreams and nightmares.

The stars have been our companion; marked the passage of time and held portents of what was to come as man emerged from prehistory. You will find few depictions of the stars outside of academia that are not invested with the contents held most deeply in the author’s soul. The catalogue of work inspired by the stars needs no chronology because its messages are timeless. The feeling of smallness and solitude that one feels when under the countless worlds known and unknown shining in the night sky is just as incomprehensible now as it was to the men in the caves 20,000 years ago or the ancient Egyptians or the great thinkers of the Renaissance. I know that we will continue to be inspired by the twinkling of the stars in the dark and I hope to preserve that dark so that humans can not only continue to find their way by the north star but find their connection to one another through the images they project onto the heavens.”

I finally got to present my program on a chilly Thursday evening. It’s understood that most of the people that come to our talks are there to find out where the telescopes are going to be afterwards and seeing that it was such a cold night we didn’t expect many takers for the telescope viewing. I was set up at the lodge in a ballroom that seats about 150 people; we don’t usually get more than 50 for talks this time of year though.
About an hour before the talk as I’m setting up, a couple comes in and calls out to me as they make their way down the aisle to the front of the room. “Well that hike you recommended today was exhausting, we’re in pain!” “I’m glad to hear it!”--“We’re going to push some chairs together and sleep here until your talk! Don’t mind us!” So much for practicing…

I decide instead to pace up and down the aisle trying to rehearse the talk in my head. As I’m stepping back up on the stage from one circuit of the room the side door opens and a line of kids walks in. The first one reaches the front of the room and sits down and the line is still coming in the door. Finally some adults come in with the middle of the line and walk up to me to explain that they’re a 7th grade class from a local school; just about 80 kids. I nod and stand quietly at the podium trying to get my head around this when I hear the teachers shushing all of the kids and the room gets completely silent. I realize they’re all looking at me assuming that I’m about to begin the talk and I quickly blurt out “Oh! We’ve got about 35 minutes before the program begins so feel free to continue talking to each other and making as much noise as you want!” seeing some concerned looks from the teachers I add “or remain completely quiet; whatever your teachers prefer!”

I head to the back of the room to greet the guests as they come in; the same people who, earlier in the day at the information desk, I told to show up whenever they wanted because the show wouldn’t be crowded. With about 10 minutes to go and the seats full and people standing at the doorway, the lights go out. Once again the teachers assume the program is starting and shush their classes. I sprint up from the back of the room and start to tell everyone once again that we’ve still got a few minutes to wait as I turn the lights back on. I look around though and see the restless students and the tired looking guests standing at the door in the back and don’t see much point in waiting, so I begin.

The program goes by quickly, coming in 20 minutes short of the hour I promised. But the kids are still awake by the end, which is encouraging, and they begin to ask a bunch of questions. “How big is a black hole?” I explain singularities and schwarzchild radii.  A girl in the front asks “How long have you been doing this?” I tell her about my work at the planetarium in Chapel Hill. “When is the Pleiades meteor shower?”—“The Pleiades are a distant star cluster, meteors are chunks of debris in the path of Earth’s orbit; perhaps you mean the Perseids!”. The girls up front raise their hands again “How old are you?”—“29”. A faint call from the back of the room, “At sunset we saw a bright light on th…”—“Venus”. Another hand shoots up from the crowd of girls in the front “Are you married?”—“If I were, I probably wouldn’t be here doing this; so, thankfully no.” A teacher stands up, “Alright, no more questions! Back to the buses!!” and the kids march out. 

1 comment:

  1. :) well, I'm glad you shared some of your program here and I'm sure there were people in the audience (although perhaps not all the 7th graders) who were quite inspired and will "reserve the dark sky". Did you conclude with the words you wrote about "why the night sky is important to humans on a personal, emotional level" ? I hope so - I loved this part: "the stars that have been perhaps the greatest of shores over which human thought and emotion have washed... It’s no wonder that so many people look to the sky when they look for their God; where else would God exist but amidst the great gallery of such potent dreams and nightmares."