How stargazing connects us

And how growing light pollution threatens that connection.

 

One of my earliest memories is of the stars.

I don’t remember the details. I was 4. My two sisters and I were swaddled in blankets and huddled together on the hood of my dad’s old brown Chevy Citation. He was sitting in a camping chair smoking cigarettes, back when he still smoked, back when he still sported a solo ’stache. The only light I can recall is from the glowing embers at the end of the butt.

That, and the stars. More stars than I can remember ever seeing, though perhaps that’s because I was only 4, and everything seemed bigger. We had gone out to watch a meteor shower — maybe the Geminids, given how cold it was, though it just as easily could have been the Perseids on a chilly western Washington summer night. I’m not sure where we were, though I like to imagine we were parked on top of a grassy hill, or out in the middle of a field.

Truthfully, I’m not even sure if this is a memory, or a dream that my 4-year-old self thought was real. I certainly don’t remember ever seeing so many stars again. Western Washington — especially along the heavily populated I-5 strip, where I spent most of my life — lacks good conditions for stargazing. Too many lights, too many clouds, too many trees, too low an elevation. I did not see the Milky Way until I was 25, driving through the deserts of the American Southwest.

I’m not alone. Eighty percent of Americans and a third of people around the world can no longer see the Milky Way, according to a global atlas of light pollution released in June by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Italy’s Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute. If you look at the atlas, you can see that western Washington is a big blob of red and yellow, a concentrated source of light pollution. And as the region’s population continues to soar, and as people move to the suburbs and exurbs to escape the booming Seattle real estate market, that blob is likely to grow.

It’s hard to quantify the importance of dark skies and of stargazing. An astronomer at Kitt Peak Observatory near Tucson, Arizona, tried to explain it to me this past summer. He says there should be a public right to view the night sky, that the Milky Way has been a cultural, spiritual, even technological part of civilization for millennia. There’s something real and yet hard to describe to be gained from looking at a truly dark sky uninhibited by light pollution — perhaps an essential piece of humanity. Who knows what exactly? Not me. Not my dad. Not even the astronomer I spoke to, who had dedicated his life to the subject. And not even Kermit the Frog, who sang: “What’s so amazing / That keeps us stargazing / And what do we think we might see?” Yet we still keep looking up.

 

The Milky Way arcs across the sky over Lava Mountain in the Ansel Adams Wilderness of California.
Grant Kaye

After my dad met my stepmom, they dragged her two kids and the three of us out to Graham, Washington, where we lived in a split-level house on a couple of acres off Mountain Highway, on the way to Mount Rainier National Park. It was the exurbs, a place that was fairly removed from society — a 15-minute drive from the grocery store, nearly an hour from the closest city. I like to describe it as the intersection of nowhere, the exact outer edge of four different towns.

When we were younger, my dad spent a lot of time outside, on the deck or standing in the middle of the field, with the glow of his cigarette in the pitch black his only giveaway. Sometimes he would take his telescope to check out planetary conjunctions. Sometimes he would just watch the bats whip around overhead, hunting for the mosquitos that bred in the puddles of our driveway. Every now and then, he would boot up Windows ’98 and modem into AOL — bbeeerrrssskzkz-zkzk-brrzk — to find out when the International Space Station was passing overhead. Then he would run out to the deck, first pausing to turn off the harsh, bright, humming porch light. He’d sit down out there, light a cigarette, take a sip from a glass of rum and Coke, and keep his eyes on the sky. Sometimes I would join him. He knew exactly from what direction the ISS would come, and when it would show up over the trees. As that glowing dot floated over, he would tell me to wave. He liked to picture what it would be like to be up there, looking down.

It’s not as if my dad, the avid X-Files and Star Trek fan, could see a lot of stars in Graham. Even out at the intersection of nowhere, the night sky was still dulled by light pollution from Tacoma. But maybe he could see just enough stars to matter. I can’t pretend to know what he was out there for, whether he was thinking about something deep, like all of the possibilities of the universe, or simply trying to get away from us five kids and his own growing list of problems. Maybe he just needed a break from the noise of civilization and a quiet moment to dream again.

My dad doesn’t smoke anymore; the heart attack changed that. He doesn’t drink rum-and-Cokes, either, or at least he tries not to, after a dangerous tango with depression and alcoholism. Both of those are probably good life decisions, but they’ve had an unfortunate side effect: He no longer has an excuse to go out to the deck or the field. He doesn’t look up anymore. Doesn’t see the stars.

Whenever I look at the night sky, I think of my dad, and I wish he were there to see it with me. Like when I climbed up Mount Maude in Washington’s Entiat Range one hot sweaty summer and wrapped myself up in a wool blanket on a rocky precipice, lightning threatening in the distance but a canvas studded with countless stars above. Or when I was in Alaska, lying on a frozen lake in the tundra, with the green and red ribbons of the Northern Lights unfurling over me. Or when I left my tent to relieve myself on the hillside at Hualapai Mountain Park in Arizona and accidentally gazed upon the Milky Way, which dwarfed the city of Kingman, the desert, and me. In those moments, I often think: My dad would like this. And I imagine him sitting by me, the smell of smoke, the glowing orange embers.

Maybe one day my dad will join me, without the cigarettes, of course. Back in Graham, where he still lives, there’s a model rocket standing on a table in the garage. It’s almost done, he says; he just needs to paint it and put on a “few finishing touches.” It’s been “almost done” for several months, though, just sitting there, untouched. I once tried to force the issue by telling him he needed to put those “finishing touches” on it by the time I moved to Montana, so I could see it take off. Nothing happened. But one of these days, I imagine, I hope, he will get inspired and he will finish it. And as it takes off toward the clouds, toward the upper parts of the atmosphere, he will remember how to dream again. He will look up and see the stars and the satellites and the moon and the meteor showers and the Aurora Borealis and the Milky Way, and he will see that little glowing dot full of humans inside of it move across the sky, and he will wave.

Zachariah Bryan is a freelance reporter and student in the University of Montana’s graduate program in environmental science and natural resource journalism. Previously, he worked the community and business beats for newspapers in Washington and Alaska.

 

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