UNDER THE STARS


On a pleasantly cool and quiet night, we parked under a mesquite tree in the high grasslands of southeast Arizona.  We were well off the highway, the only sound being the occasional chirp of a nighthawk high overhead.  Only a glow on the horizon showed us the lights of Tucson, Sierra Vista and Nogales.  It was astronomical twilight, the Sun having set well north of Mt. Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains an hour earlier. 

We were going to sleep under the stars. 

I’m an amateur astronomer and own two telescopes, but there are times it is better to view through my 1X eyes.  With no difficulty, I saw all the dim constellations of spring — Corona Borealis, Hercules, Libra, Serpens Caput, Corvus, Hydra, Crater, and even Lupus, far to the south.  The constellations looked the way they were supposed to, not washed out by artificial lighting.  The sky was full of stars, and when I lay down, I felt as if I were in a large bowl.  I really was, and I felt part of the universe.  Not many Americans have ever been under a truly dark sky. 

Around 10, a large cloud appeared in the east.  At least, it looked like a cloud.  But it had been clear with no chance of rain.  I’ve camped in plenty of places where I went to bed under a clear sky and awoke with rain on my face.  But out here, if it is clear in the evening, it will be clear in the morning.  We looked at the cloud a little more carefully.  Yes, it was a cloud, but it wasn’t a few miles up in the atmosphere.  It was a few hundred trillion miles away. 

We were seeing the Milky Way rise. 

How many of us today ever see the Milky Way, our island home in the universe?  How many have ever seen the stars the way they are supposed to be seen — in darkness?  The stars are as much our heritage as is the Grand Canyon, the black bear, the old growth forests, the Sky Islands surrounding us and water that can be drunk, unfiltered, from a lake.  As long as we have that heritage, we connect to our forebears.  And if we lose that heritage, what do we have left as a people? 

I pondered all that as I watched the galaxy rise, saw Vega and Altair appear, and remembered Tanabata, that delightful Japanese holiday in July where people learn about the star crossed lovers that were separated by the river that astronomers call The Great Rift.  Stars have meant something to people for thousands of years.  The stories are different, the meaning changes, but mankind has always found significance among the stars. 

We dozed for a while, awakening later in the night when the waning gibbous Moon rose over the Whetstones, a day from last quarter.  We don’t often see this phenomenon because we don’t spend whole nights out among the stars.  It’s worth doing.  The Moon appeared flat on top and was orange, a consequence of the horizon haze allowing more red to be seen than usual. 

But I didn’t think about atmospheric refraction and dust particles scattering light.  I just looked.  We saw the summer constellations – Scorpius, Ophiuchus, Serpens Cauda, Sagittarius, Corona Australis – dimmed by moonlight as the grasslands around us lit up with the glow.  Neither of us said much, and when we spoke, we whispered.  Physically, it seems impossible for sound to affect vision, yet loud talk or loud music does damage views, because we don’t just see, we experience, and the two are interlinked.  We could have viewed the same stars from the highway, but it wouldn’t have been the same.  The quiet seemed to make the stars and the Moon appear closer. 

We awoke several times that night, each time noting the change in the Moon and watching new stars rise and old ones set as our Earth slowly turned.  Morning twilight awoke us for good, and we watched the eastern sky gradually brighten and the Earth’s shadow slowly disappear into the western horizon.  I can see the Earth’s shadow every evening and every morning from Tucson, but out there the shadow was far more impressive. 

In my “must things to do” during my lifetime, sleeping under the stars was one of the earliest ones to get checked off.  Occasionally, I still do it.  Many times in Sky Island country, I’ve experienced the “outdoor triad,” wilderness, dark skies and total silence.  On first glance it doesn’t appear to make much sense, but I think that by getting away from people in the outdoors and being alone with the stars I feel more connected to humanity.

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