Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The dark cloths of night

For years I taught a general studies astronomy course for liberal arts students. And often, when we reached the home galaxy, I asked, "How many of you have seen the Milky Way?" The answer was usually one or two at most out of a class of thirty.

Which is no surprise. I can't see the Milky Way from my neighborhood, which is about half-way between Boston, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. You'd have to live somewhere pretty far out in the country to see the Milky Way from the eastern United States.

We first came to this little island in the central Bahamas looking for dark skies. The movie Frankie Starlight paid for the house. We called it "Starlight House," and foreswore any outside lighting. The Milky Way draped itself gloriously across our sky, a luminous river of light. Even the zodiacal light was prominent, that post-sunset, pre-sunrise pillar of sunlight reflected into the night sky by dust in the plane of the solar system. The Beehive in Cancer, the Double Cluster in Perseus, the Andromeda Galaxy -- all visible to the naked eye. We never tired of the dark.

Then the government installed street lighting (of the most environmentally unfriendly sort) along the Queen's Highway. We managed to forestall a street light at the foot of our driveway, but our Bahamian neighbor down the lane welcomed the illumination, and who can blame her; she feels much safer. When the Four Seasons resort (now Sandals) arrived on the island, four miles from our house, it cast a pernicious glow on the northern horizon.

We watched the Milky Way last evening from the beach with grandchildren, but it was a pale imitation of what we saw fifteen years ago. I wonder if there will be any place in the world where my grandchildren's grandchildren will be able to go and see the galaxy in all of its undiminished splendor.

All praise to the International Dark-Sky Association for their good work, and to Fred Schaaf for his annual reports in Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar. Meanwhile, our sweet little planet lights up like a Christmas tree and the glorious universe of which we are a part fades inexorably from view.
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W. B. Yeats