Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the illuminous observation, “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.”
As teenagers, my friends and I drove into the desert for a night under the stars. Amongst the sagebrush between Boise and Mountain Home, we shared thermoses of hot chocolate while wrapped in sleeping bags. We oohed and aahed at shooting stars, pointed out constellations, and marveled at the movement of light bodies across the dark sky, marking the hours until dawn. In town, bright lights illuminated empty parking lots, stadium lights lit up half the city, and over-zealous residents lit up the other half. People were so intent on creating their own light, they forgot about the quiet beauty of the stars.
Years later, I stood next to someone on a mountaintop at night. He had never seen stars. He said his home city was at sea level, and here on the mountain, “we were closer to the stars,” There is a bit of truth to that statement, as silly as it sounds. The atmosphere was drier, and thinner at a higher elevation — so, yes, he could see more stars. But it was the city lights that were mostly to blame for blocking the view of the stars.
The night sky is infinitely more precious when viewed from a rural area — far away from city lights. The light from the North Star traveled 680 years to come into our view — the least we can do is take a few moments to let that light touch our skin.
The Greek and Roman constellations have other names to the First People in North America. The Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa has an exhibit called, “One Sky, Many Astronomies.” On display are Greek and Roman constellations, with an overlay of constellations from Canada’s indigenous cultures: birds, fish and a bear. The bear was a bully defeated by the seven stars also named Corona Borealis. The Inka call the Milky Way the Mayu river, the source of all water on earth. The Inka see their constellations in the dark spaces between the stars.
In the southern hemisphere constellations are upside down. The hunter Orion has done a cartwheel. Leo the lion resembles a topsy turvy turtle. The Gemini twins and the dog from Canis Major tumble towards the ground. Even the moon appears “upside down,” as all the astronomers who publish photos live in the northern hemisphere.
The dinosaurs had quite a different view of the night sky. In fact –- hold on to your stargazing hats — the dinosaurs view was from the other side of the galaxy. Dr. Jessie Christiansen, a NASA scientist at the Exoplanet Institute created an illustration of our location in the Milky Way galaxy during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. During the Cretaceous period, T. rex would have observed the Milky Way from the other side of the galaxy. Dr. Christiansen’s animation can be seen here: twitter.com/i/status/1192525169161461760. For an in-person experience, The Field Museum in Chicago features the world’s most complete T. rex skeleton under a Cretaceous starscape from 67 million years ago.
Closer to home, the Methow Valley Dark Sky Coalition is working to improve our own enjoyment of our unique night sky view from the Methow Valley. Visit www.methowdarksky.org to learn more and view a schedule of events. On Thursday (Nov. 14), at 5 p.m., the Milky Way Social Club is hosting an event at the Sixknot Taphouse in Winthrop. The “lights-out” candlelit celebration features a barbecue, cider, beer and wine to accompany a beautiful starlit night.
After all this talk about enjoying a dark night sky, I’d like to ask your help in lighting up the Native Plant gardens at the Methow Valley Interpretive Center during the winter nights. I’m looking to decorate the garden in a seasonal light display for families to enjoy during our early dark winter evenings. If you have some spare outdoor light strings stashed away that could be put to good use, please consider donating them to the Methow Valley Interpretive Center. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (509) 341-4617. Thank you!