Thursday, February 15, 2007

Earth star

Last evening an electrical storm out in the Atlantic lit up the horizon for an hour with festive pyrotechnics. We lay in bed and watched as the show of lights moved slowly from north to south. Overhead the sky was bright with stars.

The Earth is itself a little star of sorts. For billions of years it has glowed with a pale sporadic light. The flickering of electrical storms. The red glow of volcanic eruptions. The will-'o-the wisp and Saint Elmo's fire. Spontaneous methane ignitions. And bioluminescence. Algae sometimes turn the sea into shimmering sheets of light. Certain mushrooms of Southeast Asia can be seen from afar by their telltale glow. The lips of the megamouth shark are lined with hundreds of tiny lights that twinkle like a fairground's string of bulbs, enticing plankton into the gaping maw. The giant deep-sea squid Taningia danae emits blinding flashes of light to disorient its prey, and perhaps to woo a mate. Genes from the Jamaican kittyboo beetle express four colors of luminescence.

Then along came humankind.

At first we added little to the planet's illumination. Campfires. Candles. Oil lamps. Then came Faraday and the dynamo and the planet lit up like a red dwarf star.

We almost never turn on the outside lights of the house, and we stopped the Bahamas Electrical Corporation from putting a street light on the pole at the end of our driveway. For the moment, we treasure our little enclave of tropical darkness. But recent development on the island seems oblivious to environmental concerns; I can't imagine that the people who choose to live in such ostentatious circumstances care a hoot about the stars. If we were ten years younger it would be time to move on to some other place where the planet's own sweet starness is still visible.