Bright Night

By Sarah Robinson
December 6th, 2013

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The stars are so close—the constellation Scorpio seems to be resting its tail on the dark mountaintops, its stars flickering and bobbing the way sunlight does when fractured by ripples on the surface of a lake. The air is transparent with fresh wind and high altitude, the moon brand new. As we rotate farther and farther from the sun, we are not sinking deeper into darkness—instead the night lightens, begins to foam and pulse with silver. We can see Hercules’ star cluster and the Andromeda Galaxy tottering at the edge of our own with our bare eyes. Wrapped snug in the spiral arms of the Milky Way, this is how the night looked everywhere before Columbus. This was the sky whose radiance vanquished any doubt that we are the center of the universe.

We are gathered en masse, waiting in line to look into telescopes that are taller than Massimo and Matteo, our nine-year-old twins. The telescopes are fat cylinders that sit on the ground—you need to climb up a few steps onto a stool to peer into them. When you look down through the inclined lens, you can see Saturn clearly belted in a graphic of rings. The rings fuse to form what looks like a machine-polished disk made almost entirely of ice. When Galileo first saw the planet, he thought it had ears. You can see mighty Titan, the grandest of Saturn’s moons, bigger than Mercury. No one is quite sure how many moons Saturn actually has. The smallest ones are called moonlets—some orbit through loopholes in the spinning rings in an exquisite choreography of order and timing. Dozens of new moons have been found since astronomers started using digital telescopes. Of course, the moons were there all along; we just couldn’t see them. I wonder what else we will notice as we refine our instruments of perception.

The rangers here at Great Basin National Park proudly dub themselves “Dark Sky Rangers”; their motto: “half the park is after dark.” This is one of the darkest places on Earth, but they tell us that, like the four-toed terrapin and the white-bellied heron, this darkness is becoming extinct. The majority of the world can no longer see the Milky Way, and 80% of our children will never witness the clarity and brilliance that surrounds us tonight. Our electric cities are just too bright. We are like moths banging our heads incessantly against the light.

The ranger shifts the telescope in a new direction; we are now looking at the swirls of dust and hydrogen gas of protostars. Now that I see stars being born in a stew of frothy white, I can understand why we named our galaxy “Milky”: what could be more nurturing than milk, which always comes from a mother’s body? Hydrogen fluff collects around dust to make the star like the nacre that surrounds the dust inside the shell of an oyster and in time gives birth to a pearl.

 

 

To see into the cosmic nebulae, we have to use our peripheral vision. Full-on retinal vision diminishes their depth. When we gaze into this night, we are not only looking into space. We are also looking sideways back in time. The light from these stars left its point of origin 67 million years ago, the same time the molten earth folded out to form Capitol Reef on the Colorado Plateau. The scale of geologic time is perhaps conceivable only in relation to the vastness of travel in space. This starlight and the upheaval of Capitol Reef’s now-baked shell are contemporaries—twins in time.

In intergalactic space, light is not a measure of time. It is a measure of distance. A light year is the distance light travels in a vacuum in one year. But here, on this plenum called Earth, time is a measure of light. A day is a single spin toward and away from the sun, a month the record of light shrinking and swelling on the face of the moon. A year is the full tilt of light’s kaleidoscope through the seasons. On Earth, the swiftest stuff in the universe moves differently. The most indispensable element of our earthen alchemy is absorbed by matter and swallowed by plants, melts glaciers, arches in a seven-colored ribbon across the sky. Its primeval distillation is incinerated in our engines. Our body chemistry is calibrated to its slightest whim.

On Earth we do not see light. We see only in reflection that which yields itself to the visible spectrum. Light bounces off objects, shoots from mirrors, thickens with color, gets tangled up in shadow. If we measure our own lives in light years—all of these permutations, digressions, and loop-de-loops would slow down and complicate light. Below the stratosphere, light years are humanized in their contrast to darkness. If it weren’t for the night sky, we would not know starlight at all.

By the time this starlight finally reaches us, it has lost all of its dross along the way. It is light that can inspire us but no longer burn us. The words “inspire” and “desire” evolved from words that mean “to come from the stars.” Their shared root means “to breathe.” “Inspire” means “to breathe in,” “respire” means “to breathe out,” and “desire” means “of breath.” Not only is our language tied to the night sky, our myths and stories are scribbled across the soil of the infinite. The night sky has always been a rich fund for human imagining, a colossal connect-the-dots mirror of our alter egos. “The zodiac is the Rorschach test for the child Humanity,” declared Gaston Bachelard. We have grouped together totally unrelated stars, patterned flaming suns in random galaxies, into belted gods, wheel-less chariots, faithless queens, helpful virgins, sea goats, and giant ladles. Give us darkness and we give back myth—our intrigues rendered in pointillist minimalism across the surface of the night. We love the stars because, like our own minds, they bubble and pant and need to tell stories like they need to breathe.

“The mind has a latent lurking fertility not unlike the universe from which it sprang,” wrote Loren Eiseley. Seeing the sky throb with a billion points of light expands my own sense of the possible. Few today would describe our galaxy as Victor Hugo did when he called it “heaven’s anthill.” A contingent of innumerable busy ants is not exactly the image that springs to mind when we think of the night. For most of us, night is blankness without depth, something to sleep through and awaken from. The once-vivid expressionism of our collective Rorschach test has faded to a dull blur.

 

We are able to see Saturn and incipient stars because someone was kind enough to donate these telescopes. The anonymous person is likely a supporter of the International Dark-Sky Association—a group that has designated specific areas throughout the world as sanctuaries of darkness. These places, mostly national parks, still harbor the darkness of deep space. But because of rampant light pollution, these places, too, have joined the mushrooming list of endangered species.

 

 

Light pollution is too much light in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was born with the advent of the light bulb just over a century ago. It is caused by bad lighting and can be ameliorated by using light fixtures designed to illuminate only the places where light is needed rather than upwards and sideways, where superfluous light scatters through the atmosphere and causes sky glow.

We have been light junkies since long before Thomas Edison provided us with an IV drip. Since the dawn of the Enlightenment, we have been eradicating shadows and dark corners from our midst. This leaning toward the light was an understandable antithesis to the superstition and ignorance of the Dark Ages. Abstract thought, the light of reason, the exclusive truth value wielded by the visible—positivism in all its guises has reigned supreme for more than 300 years. Under the auspices of the Enlightenment, reason and certainty were prized above all, while emotion and unconscious knowing were banished to the underworld—into the darkness, as it were. The triumph of the rational spawned modern science, gave rise to the neural and cognitive sciences, the very disciplines that now tell us that human thought is largely unconscious, that consciousness is the tip of an iceberg of vast proportions. We now know that the decisions that shape our lives are arrived at as much through emotion as they are through reason. Our left and right hemispheres depend on one another and play on the same team. Ambiguity and uncertainty are not to be erased, but abided. The sticky, affective, and intuitive are indispensable guides in the thicket of this mortal coil. In our world, emotion informs reason, consciousness is rooted in the unconscious, light is inseparable from darkness—and all are implicated in the same fate. In our love of light, we must protect the night.

Not only our mental lives, but also our physical bodies have suffered from our binge of light. We now know that too much light disrupts the circadian rhythm and the natural balance of animals and people. An illuminated night destabilizes the mating, feeding, and migration patterns of nocturnal animals. The morning song of thrushes is triggered by light levels, for example. In artificially lit areas, the birds begin their chorus earlier and earlier. Some flowers, when exposed to even the briefest flash of light at night, refuse to blossom.

The botanist Carl Linnaeus noticed that the flowers of many plants open and close periodically at times that varied according to their species. He hypothesized that one could create a flower clock by arranging different flowers that opened sequentially over the course of a day. This periodic opening and closing is produced from the interaction of our internally generated rhythm and day length. This is the process known as circadian rhythm; circa is Latin for “around” and diem means “day.” We share physiological, biochemical, and behavioral processes with all plants and animals that are cued by changing light levels. We exist in these rhythms. Synchronization with the cycles of light and darkness is a fundamental characteristic of all living beings. Circadian rhythms cue long-term processes such as migration, hibernation, and endocrine levels that in turn trigger fattening and fur growth. These processes are attuned months in advance to day length. This “body clock” is entrenched in our makeup. Circadian timing is not an emergent characteristic of the brain, but an integral feature of the biochemistry of our cells. Linnaeus imagined his clock of flowers. Ours is a calendar of delicately shifting endocrine levels.

Endocrine disruption is an important issue researched by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In contemporary life we spend the major part of our lives inside buildings starved of natural light. Most of us are outdoors for less than an hour a day. Prior to industrialization, humans experienced dark nights and bright, broad-spectrum days. Unlike artificial light, sunlight varies in intensity, spectral content, and timing over the course of a day. Our eyes are designed not just for seeing; our retinas contain non-cone, non-rod receptors that signal our brains with the oscillations of day and night. But artificial lighting in buildings is designed for visual performance, not for the maintenance of endocrine rhythms. Endocrine disruption results from insufficient light during the day and too much light at night and likely contributes to the higher rates of breast and prostate cancer, infertility, precocious puberty, and sleep disorders prevalent in industrialized societies.

Perhaps more than any other historical figure, René Descartes personified the principles that gave rise to the Age of Reason. Despite having famously severed the mind from the body, he believed that the seat of the soul was located in our pineal gland, a small organ in the center of the brain that regulates our cycles of sleeping and waking. Much fuss has been made about that tiny gland through the ages; the Greek medical doctor and philosopher Galen thought that it was filled with “psychic pneuma,” a view that held until Renaissance anatomists figured out that it was filled not with air, but with liquid. Thinkers from non-Western spiritual traditions have long referred to it as our “third eye.” For Descartes, the body was resolutely “nothing but a machine made of earth” whose functions could be explained mechanistically. His mechanistic account of the body faltered, though, with the mystical importance he placed on the pineal gland, which he believed to be involved with sensation, imagination, and memory. He was interested in “the pattern in which animal spirits flow” from it. His basic assumptions about human anatomy were totally mistaken, not just by modern standards, but also in light of what was known at the time. But what is interesting is the way that someone hell-bent on separating matter from spirit connected the two through an organ smaller than a pea, one that serves to synchronize our bodies, moods, and dreams with the cycles of light.

The anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who was concerned with the role that space and time play in cultural formation and human evolution, was convinced that the endocrine system is the interface between our interior and exterior worlds. He suggested it should be renamed “the exocrine system” to more precisely describe its profound and pervasive role in regulating human behavior. Our bodies tie us visibly and invisibly to the cosmos. According to the philosopher Martin Jay, ”With vision we touch the sun and the stars.” The line that separates the heavenly bodies from our own is very hazy indeed.

Earlier civilizations reinforced their connection to the cosmos in the shapes of their towns and the rituals of their daily lives. The earliest architectural forms were laid out according to the patterns of the night sky. Their roads and buildings embodied the cosmic order of the heavens. The foundations of buildings and settlements were commemorated in regularly recurring festivals and rituals that reunited the inhabitants with the cyclic rhythm of the night. The built world mediated between earth and sky and orchestrated the activities of people’s daily lives. In generating actions that bound people to the patterns of the cosmos, the built environment was an active partner in the physical and psychic well-being of the living community.

Some have suggested that the Anasazi, the ancestors of the modern Hopi, used the night sky as their master plan. They laid out their settlements in the Four Corners area according to the constellation Orion. Each one of the important mesas is located like a star on Orion’s belt, and the settlements themselves are oriented toward winter and summer solstice points. The Hopi renovate their kivas, their ceremonial structures, on the day of the winter solstice. They synchronize the renewal of their physical space with the lengthening of daylight. This ritual was carefully executed according to rules handed down through generations. They hung feathered prayer sticks that were colored according to the six directions—the cardinal four together with the zenith and the nadir—from the roof. The vertical axis is central to their cosmology and integrated into their architecture. The Hopi believe that they emerged from a crack between the worlds, from an opening in the Earth called a sipapu—a place of darkness and fertility. The kiva is a reincarnation of this mythic beginning. It is a buried or half-buried circle that contains a circular opening that represents the original sipapu; its walls radiate out from that symbolic point of emergence. The roof represents the Milky Way, and openings in the walls symbolize their four sacred mountains. Every detail conspires to recreate the universe in miniature.

The heat burns outside, but inside the kiva it is dark and cool, the hatch above the only source of light. Light descends in wide shafts. The stirred-up dust floats in the air, shimmering like tiny crystals in a rain of light. This is an intermediate world, half-buried between the darkness above and the darkness below. The ladder is the only way out. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The harmony of the world arises from opposites held in tension as in a lyre and a bow.” The ladder stretches between two worlds, holding them in tension. The place to find purchase—the rungs that support your journey between the zenith and the nadir—are first red, then orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Facing forward, each step unravels a rainbow—color and dust—two ways to capture, briefly, the light.

Everything visible has a long history in invisibility. “The richest experiences happen long before the soul takes notice. And when we begin to open our eyes to the visible, we have already been supporters of the invisible for a long time,” observed the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio. Looking into deep space and seeing the cotton of hydrogen collect around a future star leads me to think that everything material is preceded by a cloud of potentiality that gathers around it—like the oyster sap that makes the pearl. Maybe this is how we dream the future into being: imagination pulls a star out of the haze of the possible. “Everything is dreamed first”—Bachelard, once again, was right.

We are camped next to a crystalline stream. The wind howls out every grain of dust. The weight of our bodies is the only ballast keeping the tent from launching like a kite into the sea of stars above us. The air is as pure as the water that is gushing loudly against the granite boulders. We removed the fly from the top of the tent so it wouldn’t block our view of the stars. This made it impossible to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep anyway. It was too thrilling to witness the night sky not as a handful of stars, but as a mad swarm of them. I felt excited and nervous to be on the growing edge of my own life. I kept thinking about how Saturn’s moonlets dash through loopholes of spinning ice and hard stone. I hoped that we too would be fluent in uncertainty, that we too would find our place among the order of things.