Seeking Perspective in a Starry Sky Park – Garden & Gun


I don’t remember being afraid of the dark when I was a kid. My father made the night sky a great adventure with his stories, remnants of his college science lessons mixed with traditions he picked up from what was then called the Sci-Fi Channel. On evenings when Dad wasn’t working in the cemetery at the gas station, my little brother, Nicholas, and I would grab blankets and snacks and beg him to take us outside. We piled into his golden van, drove through a clearing in the foothills of Blue Ridge in northern South Carolina, and watched the stars from the bed of the truck. If we remembered, someone would grab the binoculars my dad used in NASCAR races and tilt them skyward, looking for planets we could identify. Sometimes we have found Venus or Jupiter. We could laugh when he told us stories of heroes and dragons, the twelve labors of Hercules, the fate of Andromeda.

Dad saw the celestial map as a book of stories, a choreographed dance of celestial bodies above our heads. Each thread was a meditation on creation and destruction, and how light and darkness needed each other to function. The stars have made us able to travel, in our heads but also by land. We have learned that it was their light and their positions that helped humans navigate – across seas, or, if you were enslaved like my ancestors were, perhaps to freedom. When we were kids, watching them gave us a way to calibrate our expectations of our place in the world. We came to understand that the stories we were told, which we later passed on to others, offered a way to try to make sense of what we are unable to understand.

When we were old enough to go out on our own, my brother and I started braving the mid-winter temperatures to sit on the roof of Dad’s truck and talk while the vehicle was parked in the yard, the brothers and sisters. sisters wondering what we would be like when we grow up. We tried to understand the science we were taught in school – talking about light years and infinity. The cosmos made us feel small, intruding in a situation over which we had little control. At nine and twelve, we had no way of disentangling the true meaning of time except to recognize that one day we would run out. Some evenings we didn’t say anything.

The night has since changed. I can no longer see the wonders of our galaxy from my backyard, a predicament that leads me to Bare Starry Sky Observatory in Burnsville, North Carolina, the first certified Starry Sky Park of the International Starry Sky Association At the South-East. This edge of Yancey County is one of the last truly dark patches of sky east of the Mississippi. For thousands of years, after dark, humans have found a way to adapt to it. Now we are shaping the world according to our needs, illuminating the darkness with artificial light. But those constantly lit nights, along with a spike in land use planning in the South, have created light pollution, blocking our ability to appreciate the miracle of the lush, deep, and inky skies where the moon and stars guide us. who we are and where we are going.

Almost two decades after these truck talks, I’m looking again for that tapestry of stars, the kind of velvety night that has retreated further into the forests with the advent of urban sprawl and of the lampposts that accompanied it. The Bare Dark Sky Observatory is far enough away from any city that a clear night brings a breathtaking spectacle: with the naked eye we can see over 9,000 stars. With the observatory’s telescope, the region’s largest dedicated to public use, that number climbs to 700 million.

After having toured the property, in the heart of an ancient forest, I watch the sun set over the meadow at the foot of the observatory. The land here has not always been so beautiful. A large mica mining operation once thrived on this prairie. A variety of products use the fluffy material, from insulators in electronic equipment to makeup in which it creates a shimmering effect. This region has long provided a large part of the country’s supply. When the mine closed, it left a large gash in the ground, which the municipality turned into a county dump.

Eventually, when the landfill was closed, an artists’ cooperative reclaimed the space. With the intention of creating something beneficial out of the waste, they named their cooperative EnergyXchange and used the methane emitted from the landfill to power artist studios, heat ceramic kilns and support agricultural greenhouses. When the methane ran out, the organization dissolved. Mayland Community College took over the property and renamed it Mayland Earth to Sky Park. Nestled in the Blue Ridge, the area was known for a good view of the stars, and in 2014 several studies of the night sky confirmed this: Mayland got its official approval from the International Dark-Sky Association, and then went on to opened the observatory.

Now, several weekends a month, curious cosmics and astronomy enthusiasts find their way through Pisgah National Forest to find that place, for a breathtaking view of the heavens. At the observatory, at 2,736 feet above sea level, we watch the stars come out one by one – Vega first; later others, like Polaris, then all of a sudden, all of a sudden.

Our guides for the night, Jeremy Bare and Steve Bruton, call themselves the Milky Way Cowboys. Bare and a volunteer calibrate the observatory’s two outer telescopes to focus on the nebula clusters while Bruton points out the constellations. “Keep looking up,” Bruton yells from time to time, between asking the audience astronomical questions and handing out fun-sized Milky Way bars as prizes. Above, the moon is a shine, less than 8% full. The night is clear and cold, and our small group of stargazers do as Bruton says, searching for something, perhaps wondering how to make sense of what we are experiencing. In the midst of what we all hope is the twilight of a pandemic, we walked up this mountain, asking the night sky to tell us what to do with the mysteries, wondering what we will find in the absence of light. How, like this park, to build something beautiful out of what was once ugly. A reminder of who we have the capacity to be.

An alarm on Bare’s phone goes off, alerting us that the International Space Station is passing right over our heads, and we cran our necks skyward, watching the flash of light as it accelerates through the night. . The six-person crew on board are from different countries, but they have come together to test their endurance in a life-hostile environment as we humans navigate new territories and plan future missions to Mars. . Those of us who are still terrestrial marvel at it all – the gas balls thousands of light years away, the occasional meteors flashing on the periphery, the humans living above us, at least for the sake of it. a little moment.

When I decide to leave, it’s almost midnight – my eyes have adapted to my Stygian environment, which makes it easier
take my bearings. I step out of the observatory and the ground around me sparkles: mica. Not enough to be worth mining, perhaps, but enough to dazzle. Azaleas and white irises along my path, planted specifically to reflect moonlight and starlight, appear to float and glow in the dark.

So much has changed since my childhood communions with the night. My family is smaller, my worries bigger – the compass I once used to negotiate my day-to-day path does not follow after a disconcerting year that has taken so many people. Some sleepless nights, I don’t know how the world works. There is so much pressure to create my own light, without thinking too much about the emotional or environmental costs. When it goes out, I find myself fumbling around, looking for something to support me during the dark times of life. But here, among the stars, I feel a glimmer of hope. The uncertainty that seemed overwhelming receded to the back of my mind. And it’s worth fighting to keep both these fortresses from darkness and myself. Maybe if nothing else, I can reflect some of that light on another, so they can feel it too.

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