Illustration by Bob AulWe traveled up california's spine like a blissful sensation, driving north all night along Interstate 5 almost to Oregon, so high it seemed we just might reach out and touch the stars. Yes, the stars were still up there, still everywhere, just as luminous as we remembered, even more numerous than the streetlights that blot out most of them down in Orange County. But all that spilled-sugar glitter still originated millions of light-years away, far beyond not only our reach but also our reason. That hadn't changed, either. As always, our attempts to comprehend what we were seeing didn't get anywhere. We had to be content—and, eventually, grateful—just to watch the stars, just to consider them and, inevitably, to be justly humbled by them. It was more than enough.
The starlight became a highlight of our summer vacation. From the back porch of a ramshackle mobile home perched on a mountaintop, eight miles of unpaved road above the gold-rush town of Weaverville, we stared in dumbfounded reverence as each grand and dazzling day was absorbed into the countless hot little dots of eternity. The stars flickered like old memories —which, of course, is the very definition of their light. The little beam of Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth, takes 4.3 light-years to get here. The soft sprinkle of Andromeda, the nearest spiral galaxy, travels 3 million years before we see it. By the time starlight arrives, the stars that emitted it may not even exist anymore.
As we sat on the porch of that old trailer, on that mountaintop, staring up, somebody remarked that we were actually reliving ancient history. It felt more like the fourth grade to me—and, well, that might be just about the same thing. Fourth grade is when I first studied California history and learned about gold-rush towns like Weaverville, which was founded in 1850. Fourth grade was when I began to appreciate the implications of a light-year, the nearly 6 trillion miles that light travels—at 186,282 miles per second—in one year. And fourth grade was followed by the summer that included the warm evening I lay alone on the back lawn of my uncle John's house in Anaheim, after all the other kids had gone inside, and lost myself looking into the sky at all the stars.
In the mid-1960s, lots of stars were visible above Anaheim. The city was still adorned with garlands of sweet-smelling orange trees. There were groves at both ends of my uncle's home on Ricky Avenue, just a few blocks from Disneyland. There were many more throughout Orange County, huge swaths of trees with dark-green leaves that after sunset seemed to turn blacker than the night, as though deferring to the celestial extravaganza above. But as I lay on my back that night, breathing in the friendly fragrance and listening to the familiar voices inside the house and floating off toward the twinkle-twinkle of the stars I'd learned to love in nursery rhyme, my most basic perspective unexpectedly shifted. Suddenly, my sense of my place and my importance changed. From the center of a carousel of my own worldly desires and concerns, I was whisked to the edge of a cosmic thrill ride that was speeding in unknown directions and with unknowable purpose. I thought I could feel the planet move faster and faster, that my body was being pressed against the little patch of back lawn by the force of this movement. Then I began to feel myself getting smaller and smaller.
But the sensation was not so much that I was shrinking as that the Earth itself was being left more and more alone as the edge of the ever-inflating sky raced away. The universe was expanding before my eyes. And as it did, my specific, Catholic-school God shattered, transforming into those countless sparkling pieces of light above me. Everything I had ever assumed was simultaneously validated and rendered indefinable. I thought I saw things moving and sensed things happening, but I knew that all of it was occurring in places so far away—and getting so much farther away with each succeeding moment than I could ever travel in a lifetime—that I realized I could never know it. Yet, as insignificant as I felt, I also sensed that I was known and being watched by all that I could never know or see. I wished I hadn't stayed out in the back yard when everyone else went inside. And as I got up and ran toward the house, I knew that my experience is the reason everybody on Earth does everything they do every day—filling their time, trying their best not to think too much about how they came to be in all this inspiring, horrifying, unanswered space. I realized that this is the eternal condition of the human race—terrified yet mesmerized by its unknown fate. Staring, wondering, looking away, and then looking once again.
"You've hit the nail on the head," says bob gent, his warm voice pouring reassuringly through the telephone from his home in Virginia, where I reached him after returning from my vacation in northern California. "That is exactly why I do this."
Gent is an amateur astronomer and the public-relations officer for the International Dark-Sky Association, which is dedicated to combating light pollution—the growing glow of man-made outdoor lighting that is making it more and more difficult to see the stars. "When I was a boy growing up in Arizona, I would look up at night, and the sky would be filled with millions of stars—I could see the galaxy—and it was a magnificent spiritual experience," Gent recalls. "But all those stars aren't visible anymore because the lights of urban sprawl make them impossible to see. In fact, now that the vast majority of people across the country live in cities, they rarely get to experience that—maybe only when they go on vacation."
Life in brightly illuminated cities is distorting our concept of the universe. For many people, the once-eternal night sky is only about 40 feet high—the height of a street lamp—and its heavenly pageant of stars is reduced to a scraggly strand of Christmas lights from a Charlie Brown tree. The valuable message of night, which for centuries checked the human ego with a humbling reminder of Earth's true itsy-bitsy-ness, has been obscured by the electric glow of our self-promoting light show.
The two biggest reasons for lots of outdoor lighting are security and advertising. For electric companies, those reasons work together. Southern California Edison recently concluded a major advertising campaign that described a dark front yard as a welcome mat to burglars. One of its billboards showed a single woman crouching indoors and peering out the window at the hazy shadow of a man who appeared to be carrying a weapon—a man who, when the lights went on, turned out to be carrying flowers.
"The idea that more light equals better security is a misconception," insists Bob Gill, an administrator in the physics department at Cal State Fullerton who oversees the campus's compliance with environmental and security regulations. "By shielding bulbs and directing them where they're needed, it's possible to control lighting and reduce light pollution without detriment to security."
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Likewise, a study of commercial lighting by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America concluded that many companies use five times the amount of light necessary for effective marketing. "It becomes kind of a lighting war—like, I can make a light brighter than you can," says Gent, whose International Dark-Sky Association represents 3,300 members in 69 countries. "It's almost reached the point where you can get a sunburn going to McDonald's at night."
The effects of all this nonstop light aren't merely aesthetic. Studies indicate an adverse impact everywhere, from the eyesight of babies raised in too-bright nurseries to migrating birds that are confused into flying at night and crash into buildings. "For millions of years, we have lived on this planet with day and night," says Gent. "Now business is trying to take away the night. To me, it's a national tragedy."
Unlike most forms of pollution, however, nearly all the ill effects of light pollution can be solved instantaneously—by pulling a plug or flipping a switch. Gibson Reaves, 76, the noted astronomer from USC who grew up in Los Angeles near the intersection of Highland Avenue and Olympic Boulevard, can attest to that. "The last time I saw a good-looking night sky in the cities of Southern California was during the blackouts and gas rationing of World War II," Reaves recalls. "That created less smog and less light. We were scared—we didn't know what was going to happen—but it was beautiful. I've never forgotten it."
It seems the best nights are like that. Every time I look into a dark, star-dusted sky and consider the inconceivable, I am reminded of a power greater than myself and a mystery beyond any attempts to solve. I can feel frustrated—doomed—when I realize that my fate is so out of my control. I can feel cynical—angry—when I see how feeble are the looms of religion and science upon which we weave our faith. But more often these past few years, my reflexive choking gasp in the face of astronomical grandeur is relieved by a breath of resuscitating air—a new perspective. Sometimes, when I am open-minded and willing, I can see the endlessness of the universe as a healthy reminder, which places my ego in its proper perspective. I can be calmed and consoled by it, too, because to surrender to its plan is to receive freedom from my own. My concerns, my schemes, my schedules, my self-serving expectations of myself and my judgmental expectations of others—they can fall away, replaced by the simplicity of what I am pleased to be reminded are my core values: love, tolerance, helpfulness. A starry, starry night reminds me that I am neither such a big deal, nor such a bad guy, as I had hoped or feared.