As a boy, I spent my summer vacations in the countryside with my grandparents. There was no plumbing in the house back then and after dinner, we had to go to the well-side to wash our hands. All light there was cast by an incandescent bulb that would be enveloped in flying insects. Standing in that small island of light, I would hurriedly wash my hands and brush my teeth. Beyond the edges of the lit backyard lay stuff that makes up the nightmares of a seven-year-old. Between this light and the speck of light from the neighbor’s house that stood north of us, lay many hundred yards of unadulterated darkness.
Fast forward to a few years later. As a teen, during the scheduled summer power outages in Kerala, I would lie down on the terrace of the now renovated house. The stars in the countryside still shone brighter than in the city where I lived; and if I was lucky, I would see an occasional shooting star. A cacophony of crickets or a bullfrog’s croaking would abruptly puncture the silence. Once or twice, I have also heard the unnerving hoot of a Mottled Wood owl, known in these parts by its derisive moniker kaalan kozhi — the fowl of death. However, the emotions created by darkness weren’t the same anymore; either age had dimmed them, or the fact that there were many more lights all around. Along with the neighboring properties, the darkness was fragmented too, as new houses sprung all around us.
The stars we see are a manifestation of the light emitted by them. These tiny light particles would have traversed up to millions of light-years, dodging cosmic dust and through the earth’s atmosphere. When this starlight reaches a city, it hits a thick shroud. The higher concentration of dust and smoke over a city deflects the starlight off their straight path. And to add to that, stray light from cities illuminates this haze from under, blotting out the starlight. In short, if a body in the sky has to show up over a polluted city, it should be either burning with furious energy or be closer to the earth. Which is why, when we go out into the countryside that is devoid of such pollution, our night sky erupts into a dazzling display of stars and planets, to whose existence we were oblivious.
Twenty years on, I have found another reason to love the darkness. I started tagging along with a group of friends who enjoy astrophotography. We drive down to the corners of the US where there is little human habitation. We stand under the night skies to look at stars blossom. When we stand under that canopy of stars, we are in fact looking at the past. Several of those stars could have already burned out; what we are seeing would be the light emitted by those stars when they were still in their prime.
Come Spring, another spectacle graces the night skies of the northern hemisphere. The Milky Way’s arm begins to appear as an arch in the sky. It moves higher every week until it turns vertical in the sky before disappearing in winter. Just a glance at the Milky Way is enough to put one’s existence into perspective. It reminds us of our cosmic connections, our puniness, and above all the magic of creation. Regardless of whether one believes in the religious version or the scientific version of creation, Carl Sagan’s words ring true: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff.”
Sunday, April 26, marks the end of the Dark Sky Week organized by the International Dark Skies Association. They operate to retain the tiny pockets of truly dark skies restricted to less populous lands and nature preserves. The hopes of our next generation seeing the stars in all their glory hinges on spreading awareness about dark skies. Our actions, too, can help, avoiding unshielded outdoor lamps and turning off lights that aren’t really necessary.
Let’s hope that in the near future, night lighting gets smarter and that stars can return to our skies. Until then, do take your young ones to such places where they can watch and admire our real ancestry. Because, in the end, we are all but stardust.