Sometimes You Have to Move to See It

September 15, 2010

Illuminations on Penn. Ave. Wash'n. for inauguration

Last night I woke around 3 a.m.; a tickle in my throat coughed me awake. In my foggy, dreamy state, I looked out the window and thought, “The stars have moved,” what with the constellations being different than when I’d tucked in and all.

Of course as I roused myself awake enough to take some sips of water and quiet the cough, I realized that this new view of the heavens was brought to me by six hours of earth’s rotation, not the heavens’ wandering.

I am repeatedly struck by the matter of perspective, and how our lives are so frequently shaped and colored by this basic–yet highly individualized and situational–thing.

Perspective. Our viewpoint. We all know how this works. What we see–and therefore what we do or do not experience–is filtered by our point of view. And, we can hold still with a limited perspective, or we can shift about, and gain a larger, more general perspective.

Neither the limited nor the larger perspective is “the one true answer.” For example, to focus requires a limited view, and to plan ahead requires a larger perspective.

But, often, what we don’t see can be detrimental.

When I was a young girl living in Seattle, the clear, night skies always displayed a bajillion stars, punctuated by the marvelous Milky Way. That was back in the 1960s. If you now live in any kind of city, you know that there is never a visible Milky Way in your sky, let alone a bajillion stars. On a good night there might be a few constellations and a handful of other stars.

Half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. That’s more than three billion people living in busy, light-filled areas, and I’m going to take a little leap here and just say that that’s three billion people who live with mediocre night skies.

Do you remember rich, star-filled skies? (Are you fortunate enough to live with one?) They are like rainbows, and thunderstorms, and giant, gold harvest moons–they are magical. They are stunning and awesome, in the very literal sense.

And the thing about the night skies is that they put our lives into perspective. You know, like those photos of objects that include a coin or a ruler to give us a sense of scale. When we stand looking up into the starlit heavens, we get a taste or a reminder of things such as the vastness of the universe; the immenseness of possibilities, and the truth that we are all sharing this same space.

But.

A measly night sky cheats us. A sky with only a few visible stars gives us a shallow perspective, and does not provide a valuable service–a regular bout of marveling, an unfaltering dose of awe-some. Nor does such a wane sky give that sense of our own place in the universe, both vast, and small.

Three billion people are going without a rich night sky, with all its service to the human heart and soul. Is this contributing to our culture’s woes? I’ve no doubt we’d all be happier if everyone had the night sky of my childhood.

Photo: Illuminations on Penn. Ave. Wash’n. for inauguration from the Library of Congress

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nell September 15, 2010 at 11:13 pm

Reading this, I was struck by just how long it’s been since I’ve seen the night sky the way you describe it – barely black for all the stars that fill it. And I’ve surprised myself at how much I miss something that simple. You’re right – it is such a service to be reminded of that scale, and to be overflowing with such a pure sense of wonderment. I feel suddenly starved for that view.

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