Starry, Starry Night

The Lure of the Dark

by on October 01, 2002

 

Comet Hale-Bopp traverses the night sky over Joseph Grant County Park, east of San Jose.

Photo by Philip Robertson.

 

 

 

“Though my soul may set in darkness,
it will rise again in light.
I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night.”
–Sarah Williams

Ever since humans first looked up and beheld the night sky, we have used the stars to orient ourselves both physically and psychologically. The stars were moving, we used to think, around the earth; but it is we who are spinning—wildly, it seems, in the context of stellar time. The stars and the silence of deep space seem to mock us with infinity. It’s as if they hold a secret, something beyond our clumsy chronological reckonings, the key to past and future and the ultimate sense of place.

I am pondering this on a near-moonless night as I count shooting stars from my seat on the bumpy fire trail that cuts through Leona Heights Regional Open Space in the Oakland Hills. Above me the meteors flash blue-white and bright on their 90,000-miles-per-hour collision course with Earth’s atmosphere, where they vaporize like bugs on a windshield in a splatter of plasmatic brilliance. These are the Perseids, the detritus of periodic comet Swift-Tuttle, a dirty snowball of ice and dust trapped in an orbit around our sun, which delivers it to our portion of the solar system every 120 years. Our planetary path drives us through the lingering cloud of sand-particle-sized debris once every year around the middle of August, and written records of this intersection date all the way back to 36 a.d. Along with the Leonids in November and the Geminids in December, the Perseid shower is one of the year’s most visible astronomical spectacles, and this year I have dragged my groggy family—husband, Lowry, and our constant canine companion, Braveheart—out in the middle of the night to witness the cosmic fireworks.

Star trails
Star trails duing a Leonid meteor shower over Lake Tahoe. Photo by Philip Robertson.

I’ve promised them the stellar equivalent of a Fourth of July display. I can’t help smiling when I think of that comparison. Our fiery man-made pyrotechnics are so spectacular that the slow progress of this meteor shower would exasperate most folk. They say you can pick out up to 80 meteors an hour (chronicles from previous years place that number even higher) but we are lucky to see 10 or 11. In part this is due to the condominium complex over the hill and just around the bend. To really get a good view of celestial bodies and phenomena like stars and meteor showers, we have to escape the pollution of artificial light. And use a telescope. This is not surprising, since the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is four light years (or 24 trillion miles) away. But there are still approximately 6,000 stars visible to the naked eye, and given the right conditions we can see as many as 3,000 from any single point on Earth at any single time. Unfortunately, these are not the right conditions, and from this vantage point we are able to see only the biggest and the brightest.

Grey fox
Grey fox, Bear Valley Trail, Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Ian Tait.

By this time, my companions are a little grumpy. I can’t blame them. We humans and our canine pals are not designed for night. Human beings are diurnal, functioning best in the full light of day. Photosensors in our retinas transmit information to a group of cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, located in a region of the brain called the hypothalamus. This information induces a wide array of neuroendocrine responses including changes in body temperature, urine production, and metabolic rate. When light diminishes, our internal operations slow; we generally get sleepy. These circadian rhythms, the patterns of activity in a 24-hour period, are important biological regulators for every living thing. They create a kind of natural curfew; and while there is some room for variation, for the most part we, as a species, like to spend our nights recumbent. People occupy the day shift on a planet where the staggered sleep and waking cycles of the plant and animal population—many of them based on predator-prey relationships—have been orchestrated to ensure survival. Some creatures—deer, rabbits, coyotes, porcupines, and bats—are crepuscular, having evolved to forage in a twilit world, while others—like skunks, foxes, bobcats, raccoons, and mountain lions—come out at night. We have dark myths about those of the species Homo sapiens who prefer a roofless night far from the comforts of simulated sunlight, assigning them the shapes of animals associated with crepuscular and nocturnal realms.

Yet something about the night has always intrigued humanity and drawn us into it. Maybe it’s simply the thrill of trespass, the transgressive pleasure of ranging about at a time for which we’re not genetically engineered. Maybe it’s the sensuality of darkness. Humans have roughly 200,000 photoreceptors per square millimeter of retina. True denizens of the night have many more: The dimmest star that people can discern with the naked eye would look 50 times brighter to an owl. Our night vision, in other words, is not particularly acute. So in the dark, we are at the mercy of our other senses, which come alive to fill the breach. We smell the water-soaked earth around a creek, feel the presence of animals that watch us but remain unseen, hear the fog dripping from tree limbs and branches. Or maybe it’s the possibility of solitude that makes nighttime so alluring — the opportunity to rub shoulders with a whole new cast of characters, to visit a dusky world where we can move about as strangers.

Moonrise
Photo by Jeff Caton.

Whatever the appeal, it’s surprisingly widespread. With more natural open space than any other major metropolitan area in the U.S., the Bay Area is full of opportunities for after-dark excursions, and they are usually well attended. For me, there’s nothing more exhilarating than walking silently along a path grown fuzzy with shadow. On a twilight hike in the company of others, I hear the voices of the adults and children up ahead drift through the darkness, interlaced with the trill of crickets, the chirrup of katydids, and the soft shush of zephyrs riding the leaves of the bay laurel and scenting the night with fragrance. We watch the moon rise over the eastern hills, observing the “moon illusion,” the visual phenomenon that makes our lunar satellite seem so much larger when it appears in relationship to the horizon. Later we find ourselves upon a crumbling road that winds through walls of stinging nettle and poison hemlock fringed in pungent skunkweed, in a world populated with the shades of animals like bobcats, badgers, silvery turnip-nosed opossums, ninja-like raccoons, and a host of other creatures that hear and smell and see better in the dark than we do.

I love this interaction with the nocturnal community, but mostly, at night, my eyes are drawn away from the more immediate need to find a path through the gloaming, to the cold and distant beauty of the stars. They seem to be a kind of compass the meaning of which I don’t consciously understand, yet I find comfort in them. I wonder if the birds feel this way on their thousand-mile journeys up and down the coasts. Some scientists say migrating avians are born with internal star charts that keep them on track through the leagues and generations, allowing them to navigate even through chronic overcast. Experiments have demonstrated that rotating an image of the stars can cause birds to take off in the wrong direction. I like to think that they use celestial navigation much as we humans have, over the centuries, on our forays into the unknown.

I have no natural internal star chart. I look up at the pinpricks of light that dot the inky sky and impose whatever order I can, shamelessly anthropomorphizing, trying to make sense of them, much as people of all cultures in all times have felt compelled to do. The Pomo Indians of Northern California called the Big Dipper tceno, after a hooked staff used for gathering berries and fruit. The Coastal Miwok, who lived in what is now Marin County, called Orion mainko or kolako, which means either woman or girls. As for meteor showers, Native Americans kept records of them through oral narratives, as pictographs on animal skins, and as notches on calendar sticks. The Kawaiisu of Southern California thought meteors plunging toward the horizon were an omen of sickness and death; the Central and Northern California Wintu thought meteors were the spirits of shamans; the Chumash of the Central Coast viewed them as souls traveling to the afterlife; and the Eastern Pomo (who resided east of the Coast Ranges) called them fire dropping from heaven.

I’ve studied mainly western interpretations of the cosmos. For me the evening star is Venus, a goddess and a planet; Orion is a hunter; and the Big Dipper is also Ursa Major or the Great Bear. I can find Perseus and Leo and Gemini, the constellations from which those yearly meteor showers appear to radiate, and there are other celestial objects that I’ve studied and mused over and written about through the years that please me with their familiarity. If I want to look at the stars from yet another perspective — one grounded in astronomy — I can read about quasars, black holes, asteroids, and supernovas; visit planetariums; and peer through the lenses of telescopes at spiral galaxies, nebulae, and red dwarves. But this just thrusts me toward deeper mystification. I think that each and every one of us has a different relationship with the stars, one cobbled together from bits of cultural and personal mythology, science, and speculation, and it’s just this mystery that makes the night sky so enthralling. It’s like a vast enigma waiting to be deciphered, an important map, in bright relief, for which we don’t yet have the key. Perhaps the direction that the stars point isn’t north or south or east or west at all, but out and away. Perhaps they chart a clear path to the point where time begins and ends, flashing the signals that will guide us trillions of miles on a migration taking us, paradoxically, both beyond ourselves and to our very center.

A rustle in the nearby brush brings me suddenly back to earth, back to a dirt path in an East Bay park. Braveheart’s growl is a low rumble. He doesn’t like what he is smelling in the nearby chaparral. I realize it’s close to 2 a.m. and tell my little family that it’s time for us to go. I’m sleepy now, my biological clock insistent that this is no time for me to be up. I take a last look at the night sky, where my mind has been roaming, and force myself to look away, gather up my family, terra-bound, and turn, a bit reluctantly, back into an earthling.

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