Ode to Dark Skies

Light pollution dominates the night sky of urbanised areas, but truly dark skies are out there. It's a good time to seek them out.

Ode to Dark Skies

Dark skies have been on my mind. I mean, really dark skies: those ones flooded with rich blacks interrupted only by the cosmos, and celestial bodies layered infinitely back in time towards the universe’s moment of birth. Skies where the galactic core of the Milky Way is visible with the naked eye on moonless nights and its endless midriff hangs in the firmament like a natural ghost, arching over our insy planet, charging up every soul on it with who-knows-what. Hovering, alive. Its intentions unspeakable. Skies free of light pollution.

With man-made climate change posing an increasing threat to life on Earth each year, it’s easy to forget the sheer variety of ways we have fucked over the planet in the last hundred or so years.

But light pollution is the most visible, and amongst the most symbolically tragic. From almost any urbanised place, look up at night and witness the washed out blue-white-grey murk, aglow from the ground up, sprinkled with a few stars here and there, but satellites and planes dominating.

In these places, and that’s most places, we have altered nature’s most vast and awesome canvas, and the only one that properly puts us in our place and locates us within an incredibly larger existence. A view able to quickly, silently, and efficiently relocate our souls.

The light polluting our skies in cities and towns across the world has left the surface and is headed through space. It will be up there, traveling towards the stars it’s washing out, for X number of light years (tens, hundreds, thousands, millions). Once the skies are polluted, they’re polluted. All we can do is protect the ones left. It’s a finite resource that once gone will have no conceivable replacement (we could take up abode in space, yes, but the air is not good).

There are still places we can travel to and see, to varying degrees, the night sky as it should appear from almost any point on Earth. Often these places are only a couple hours' travel from major cities. Search out your nearest dark sky, and go: it’s something you should really see with frequency.

We should not underestimate the value of the night sky, either. I mean its function to us, as biological creatures. Consider our endless fascination with the stars. The effect they have on the mind at once calming and exhilarating. They inspire wonder and passion, absorbing our most romantic notions into space and sending them back to us in dazzling new forms, reshaped and imbued with something undefinable but certainly Good. The night sky places the mind in a unique state that nothing else in nature can. It makes us think like nothing else can.

This can't be accidental. We are animals who have evolved over millennia to co-exist rather closely with our environment. When an aspect of nature draws us to it, and there is no apparent rational reason, we can assume it has been selected by our biological system to produce an important effect. That it must be serving an essential purpose beyond our obvious survival needs of food, water, air. Something to keep us in balance. To put us back on the front foot with our existence. To defragment our souls. And the emotional and mental shift it makes in us must be one that is supposed to happen frequently — almost every night, we can assume.

If we damage or destroy parts of nature we are deeply attuned to, we can expect some grave consequences, even if they are not obvious ones. More than that, there is something basically disgusting, and tragic, about an animal that destroys a part of its environment it finds magical on a spiritual and emotional level. Sacrificing magic for the convenience of industry. But let's not go too far down that road, lest we become misanthropes.

Let’s celebrate the magnificence of the dark skies we have left. Let’s visit them, appreciate them, and spend time with them. In times of global pandemic, it is among the best ways to practise social distancing while enriching our relationship with the world around us. Spending time under dark skies is the only way to build a deep and genuine appreciation for them, by having something to compare to the sad murk that passes itself off as the night sky in cities and towns these days. And widespread appreciation is essential to preserving this deeply fundamental aspect of nature: one that is meant to come as part of the standard package of Life on Earth.