One summer a few years ago I found myself on a Colorado bluff with an elevation of about 11,000 feet. As blue skies turned to gold, my companions and I built a fire, cooked ramen noodles, and pulled the cork from a bottle of red wine. We passed the bottle around as the Earth turned its back on the Sun, pulling us into shadows.
One can face east at sunset and watch darkness rise. The darkness climbed higher and soon specks of light began popping out for us from across the oceans of time. The Milky Way hung above us and we became very, very small. Our pasts and our futures seemed to shrink before us and vanish with a wink.
It is a powerful tool to be able to zoom out so far that one’s entire life simply vanishes. If any one experience can be said to put life in perspective, it is most certainly gazing at the starscape above us. I have come to realize the unfortunate truth that many of us are not often afforded this lens. The advent of electricity brought light pollution and in the span of a few generations we have mortally wounded the night sky and with it our window to the universe.
There was a time when every human was given a nightly reminder of their own smallness. For city dwellers, which now make up around 80% of the population for most developed countries¹ (and probably 99% of the world’s decision makers), it has become all too easy to forget that we are just the inhabitants of a living rock orbiting a star in a universe we barely understand.
Also, it has been discovered that thinking about distant things makes humans more creative. It seems like a safe bet that gazing at the stars would fall under this category. As we pile into cities under a cozy blanket of light are we reducing some of our original, internal illumination?
I’ve become curious as to the psychological effect of our new bright nights. We have made some wonderful advancements as a species but I fear that conquering the night has left us with some unintended consequences.
Losing the beauty of darkness has been a subtle but strong ally in a disturbing perspective shift. A shift inward. We are beginning to lose nature’s cadenced transition between night and day. The metronome is developing an arrhythmia and as fewer naked-eye astronomers look up and ponder the cosmos, fewer still will question our place in it.
Have you ever experienced an emotional or intellectual breakthrough when gazing up at a star-filled night sky?
Check out the International Dark-Sky Association