Amanda Petrusich writes: Every civilisation we know of has devised a system – scientific, religious, what have you – to make sense of the night sky. The mystery of what’s up there, where it came from, and what it means has been inherited and puzzled over for generations. Those questions may be the most human ones we have.
Due to pervasive light pollution – glare from excessive, misaimed and unshielded night lighting – 80% of Europe and North America no longer experiences real darkness. For anyone living near a major metropolis, a satellite image of the Milky Way seems abstract: we understand it to be a document of something true, but our understanding is purely theoretical. In 1994, after a predawn earthquake cut power to most of Los Angeles, the Griffith Observatory received phone calls from spooked residents asking about “the strange sky”. What those callers were seeing were stars.
I grew up in a small town in the Hudson River valley, about an hour north of New York City. Like most children, I regarded the night sky (or what I could see of it) with wonder. I understood that nobody could say for sure what was out there. Little kids are often frustrated by the smallness of their lives – as a child, you can conjure complex worlds, but in your own life, you are largely powerless to make moves. Looking up, the tininess I felt was confirmed, but it no longer felt like a liability. If the night sky offers us one thing, it is a liberating sense of ourselves in perspective, and of the many things we can neither comprehend nor control.
“I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1856. He understood those worlds as separate, but in some essential conversation with each other – to receive one without the other was to misunderstand both. But what happens when mankind divorces itself from a true experience of the cosmos, separating from the vastness above, taming it by erasing it? How can we ever come to know a heaven we can barely see? [Continue reading…]