The Night Sky: A Wilderness Obscured

photo of the night sky, the Milky Way prominentphoto: © Joe LeFevre / NBP/ Wilderness

We guard our homes and cities with light – first fires, then candles, then whale oil lamps, then Edison’s incandescent bulbs, and now (if you’re feeling green) compact fluorescent bulbs. But all of this light obscures as much as it illuminates. Amid the brightness of our cities we’ve lost our connection with a night that is dark and mysterious. Most of us no longer regularly experience the wilderness that is the night sky.

The marvel of the firmament was once commonplace, as ordinary as the sun’s daily rise, a fact we too easily forget. As with so much else – roads, climate changing pollution, population – we’ve overdone it. Light has become a pollutant on this green Earth. Nocturnal animals can be harmed by light pollution since they are biologically evolved to be dependent on an environment with a certain number of hours of uninterrupted daytime and nighttime. Sea turtles, for example, have evolved to lay their eggs on certain sandy beaches that they locate principally at night. The turtles’ cues for orienting in the proper direction appear to be based upon natural light, which is disrupted by human light pollution. Read: beachside mega-resorts.

Wilderness enthusiasts have mourned the passing of so much of our wilderness, the way wild places have been encircled by development and wildlife confined by ever smaller places. The last half-century has seen a parallel disappearance of a less-celebrated characteristic of wilderness: the unfettered view of the universe on a clear, dark night. Our grandchildren’s grandchildren, if they know of it, will mourn the pristine night sky, something to visit only in the planetarium, just as urban children today are frightened half to death when they first see the Milky Way – if they ever do.

The experience of darkness is part of the enduring resources of wilderness. In her marvelous evocation of the wild Mojave, The Land of Little Rain, Mary Austin wrote: “For all the toll the desert takes on a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars. It comes upon one with new force in the pauses of the night that the Chaldeans were a desert-bred people. It is hard to escape the sense of mastery as the stars move in the wide clear heavens to rising and settings unobscured. They look large and near and palpitant; as if they moved on some stately service not needful to declare.”

More recently, in the mid-twentieth century, David Simons, a mountaineer in the North Cascades, reminded us that when hiking at night beyond urban light pollution and without the aid of a flashlight “much is learned about the eye’s true capabilities, and the natural light sources in the night sky are fully appreciated.” For these hikers, he wrote, “The wilderness preservation ethic applies twenty-four hours a day.”

Today, there is a whole “dark sky movement” of professional and amateur astronomers alarmed that nocturnal skyglow from urban areas is blotting out the sight of stars. The International Dark-Sky Association has designated several “Dark Sky Parks” in the US – places of exceptional nighttime beauty where one can still glimpse the uninterrupted rain of starlight. They include Big Bend National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Death Valley.

“At Death Valley the sky literally begins at your feet,” says Tyler Nordgren, a physics professor at the University of Redlands and an International Dark-Sky Association board member. “When my students and I look up at night from our Southern California campus, we can usually count 12 stars in the sky. However, less than a five-hour drive from Los Angeles there’s a place where anyone can look up and see the universe the way everyone could 100 years ago.”

It is the common history of America’s progress in wilderness preservation –from Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall to David Brower and Howard Zahniser and now you – that we have expanded the reach of the wilderness concept and of our desire to preserve things our predecessors may not have recognized, or simply did not have time to prioritize. The experience of dark night is surely one of those. Our once intimate relationship with the night sky is now something exotic.

As you celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act, find some time to get out and walk a wilderness trail at night. Leave the flashlight, the headlamp, and the comfort of the campfire behind. You’ll find a stellar wilderness right above your head.

Doug Scott is the author of The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our Natural Heritage Through the Wilderness Act. Visit his webpage at www.wilderness-resources.net

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