Nature blog: I can count the stars in this heaven

This post originally appeared on February 5, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and will be moving away from this place soon, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”

I set the rotating dial on my “Luminous Star Finder” to February 3, 9 p.m., and let it sit directly under my desk lamp for a few minutes so the glow-in-the-dark stars could absorb enough light to get me through a half hour of stargazing.

Outside on Heaven’s Hillside though, it wasn’t even dark enough for the dots on the Star Finder to glow. My hopes weren’t terribly high, but I thought I might be able to identify at least one new constellation. Or at least see some familiar ones: Orion, Cassiopeia, the Big and Little Dippers, Cygnus the Swan. I should have known better.

Orion’s major stars shone faintly above the roof of my house. A waxing gibbous moon blazed almost directly above me. Venus, the evening star, hung in her position above the western horizon. Other bright stars, few enough to count had I the inclination, dotted the not-so-dark bluish-yellowish sky.

Tree of heaven branches, black against the sky, obscured part of my view. The ground looked uniformly gray-brown in the low light. I took a deep breath to ease my frustration. The air was crisp and dry, and I could smell hints of wood smoke. Aside from my breathing and rustling pages of my notebook, the only sound came from the constant hum of cars on the highway.

I tilted my head back and focused my eyes on the place Cassiopeia should have been. She’s always been my favorite constellation, despite the shortcomings of her namesake. Cobweb clouds moved across the sky, though I felt no wind. A jet flew directly overhead. I waited for stars to appear beneath the clouds bunching together against the northeastern horizon. None did. I stared harder, and I could almost see them–almost, there were hints of dots of light, but they wouldn’t materialize through the yellow film of haze that separated me from the night.

When I read poems about human impact on flora and fauna, like W.S. Merwin’s “The Last One” or “For A Coming Extinction”, I wonder if eventually this yellow film will spread over the whole planet, if the stars will become extinct to our eyes, become things visible only from space. In New Zealand, a decade ago, I saw the most beautiful starscape I have ever seen. The Milky Way looked thick enough to walk on, and so many stars shone that I don’t think it was ever truly dark there. When I think of that, and then look up at Pittsburgh’s night sky, I feel something akin to despair.

Light pollution is a problem in any large city. A National Geographic article from November 2008 says, “Now most of humanity lives under intersecting domes of reflected, refracted light, of scattering rays from overlit cities and suburbs, from light-flooded highways and factories.” This is why my Star Finder has sat on my bookshelf for several years now, unused.

Exasperated, I turned back to Orion. Surprisingly, I made out the color in the red giant Betelgeuse, the top left star (his shoulder). I couldn’t, however, tell that Rigel, the bottom right star, burns hot and blue. I learned in my undergraduate astronomy class that Betelgeuse is about to go supernova, and when it does, we’ll even be able to see it during the day. A single star glowed to the left of Orion. I consulted my Star Finder, but without the context of other stars, I couldn’t locate it within a constellation, if it even belonged to one.

The moon, at least, was beautiful. More wraith-like clouds, thin enough to see through, moved in. Moonlight refracted through the clouds’ water molecules and created a full rainbow halo around the moon. Light pollution will probably never be strong enough to drown out the moon, but it has other consequences on wildlife and humans. It confuses our circadian rhythms and makes birds sing at odd hours, among other effects.

When I look out my bedroom window and see the U.S. Steel Tower lit up at all hours of the night, windows glowing like little square stars against the blackness of its steel frame, I wonder who is working at 3 a.m. on all those floors, why all the lights must be lit at all times. Maybe we could all see better if we turned off the lights and let the stars guide us, like they used to.

What do you think?