It’s early morning. I’m pouring myself my second cup of coffee for the ride to the tree farm. Max is prancing with an eagerness that never ceases to amuse me, his toenails clicking on the hardwood kitchen floor. In dog years, he is about four years older than me, and I wish I had his enthusiasm for the day.
I grab my cap off the shelf in the coat closet next to the kitchen door and turn off the lights. Only a lamp in the living room glows. I am aware of how dark it is. I know this happens every year. The seasons change. The daylight hours get shorter. But as I step out onto the kitchen porch it feels like the earth has tilted a few extra degrees away from the sun overnight.
For the first time in months, I can’t see the steps down off the porch. My eyes are not as good as they used to be. Max has already bolted for the truck, but I am shuffling off the top step carefully. I count to six because I know how many steps I have. Old men learn to use their brain once the eyes start to go.
This may just be my favorite time of year. In the dark, the stars are out.
I pause as my feet hit the ground and look up. It’s a hazy morning and there is just a touch of twilight in the sky. So, I can only make out a couple of twinkles. Nothing impressive, but I know it’s coming. By December, this time of morning, I’ll be looking right at Orion in the southern sky. The coffee will taste better when the air is cold. And the stars will be showing off their finest sequined gowns.
I have been a star gazer since I was a kid. I spent hours out in the front yard lying on my back, watching the stars. My dad taught me about the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper and how to find the North Star. I had a small handheld telescope, like the one Black Beard used when he spied on the British ships that chased him across the open seas. On full moon nights, I could inspect the details of the moon’s surface. I thought maybe I could see Neil Armstrong.
Henry County, Georgia was still rural enough in the 60s to be dark at night. I have vivid memories of the Milky Way stretching across the night sky like a ribbon of silver and purple and blue. I didn’t understand what I was looking at. I just knew that I was mesmerized by it.
To the north, there was a constant glow of light on the horizon from Atlanta. To a kid, it felt like the city was in a different world, far, far away. But it was only 35 miles to the Atlanta Airport. I couldn’t see as many stars in that direction, but I could see airplanes circling in the traffic pattern waiting for a turn to land. I thought of them as lightning bugs with little red and green flashing lights.
In the last 20 years, I have learned more about the stars than I have known my whole life. I owe that to my good friend who is a professional astronomer. He is a self-proclaimed Astro-nerd with a PhD in astrophysics. I couldn’t hold in a 55-gallon drum what he holds in one brain cell about the mysteries of the universe.
And by the way, if you ever want to insult an astronomer, just make the mistake of calling him an astrologist. You might as well call a neurosurgeon a medicine man.
For one thing, he taught me about light pollution. The basic premise? Light is bad for looking at the stars. The only reason you can’t see the stars in the daytime is that the sun floods the atmosphere with too much light. They’re still there. You just can’t see them. City lights do the same thing on a smaller scale. He did a lot of his early stargazing in the deserts of Nevada. The darker, the better.
In 1992, I went on a fishing trip, deep in the wilderness of Ontario, Canada. Besides the great fishing, the most incredible part of the experience was the stargazing. It was so dark I could see the reflection of the stars in the surface of the lake. I had never seen stars like that. A gazillion tiny twinkling lights set against a blanket of black velvet.
It was early September. The air was cool. No humidity, which, by the way, also makes it hard to see the stars. But, when the night sky is so huge and so brilliant, it makes life itself feel insignificant. Perceptions and priorities are rearranged.
A man can get lost in the sheer beauty of places like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. Magnificent places. But, for me, I can’t escape the simple wonder of a vast universe from a seat in the middle of a cow pasture at night. Billions of years of light traveling through a dark expanse, reflecting off the retina in the back of my eyeball and touching something deep enough in me to change the way I look at life.
“When it gets dark enough, you can see the stars.” That’s a line from a Radney Foster song that has stuck with me. In part, he is singing about the death of his dad and how that reshaped his world. I have used that line in my own darkness to see things, which, before, I had not seen so clearly.
There is a value in understanding how small we are and how trivial our troubles look when set against the magnitude of a distant galaxy. To see the stars is to see that we belong to something radically more significant than a ballgame or a retirement portfolio or a hospital room.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I imagine there are people all over the globe in cities like Atlanta and Chicago and Hong Kong and Paris who have never seen the stars. Not really. They look up and because of the halo of light, they can only make out a few twinkles. So, why bother. Nothing much to see. And they stop looking. They lose perspective.
I recognize this is a huge over-simplification for me to say this, but if more people could see the stars our world might be a different place. More aware of things beyond the ambient clutter of our own lives. More humility. More humanity. More gratitude. More room for others to shine in the expanse around us.
When winter comes, I am a boy again. Eager to go outside at night to see the stars. I don’t lay on my back anymore. If I did, I might have to spend the night out there. But I still look up in wonder. Gazing at the heavens still moves me.
I can’t imagine living someplace where I couldn’t see the stars.
In the darkest hour, I can see my brightest moments.