Recently, at mid-afternoon on a rainy day, I looked up at the cloud-burdened sky and missed the stars. Truly missed them. I felt the kind of wistful pangs that you might feel when remembering a long-gone but beloved grandparent, or a teenage sweetheart who once misunderstood you.
I knew they were up there — the stars, I mean. I knew they would probably be studding the skies above the next night; the forecast called for clearing weather. But the truth is, it wasn’t star-studded nights I was longing for. What I missed were gauzy blankets and veils of stars — the very warp and weft of the universe.
I’ve seen this fine fabric twist and wrap through Sonoran Desert skies. If you have ever spent the night outdoors in some remote part of the desert, you’ll know what I’m talking about. A little-known canyon in Arizona just a stone’s throw from Mexico is my site of choice.
It was nearly a decade ago, when I slept outdoors in that canyon for the better part of a week, that I first discovered this intricate night tapestry. That’s a lie. Who could sleep? The quicksilver light from above bathed everything. The world was new. Even though I was bone-tired after long days of scrambling in that wild country, I struggled to keep my eyes shut.
I wanted to dance under that light. I wanted to leap into it. That kind of light touches you, changes you. Sometimes it seems to call to you. I think that’s what happened on that rainy day. I heard the call from afar and wondered what the stars could want from me.
Life has pulled me back East. Now I live within sight of one of east Tennessee’s primary sources of pollution. The twin stacks of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal-fired plant stand like giant goalposts on the horizon. Their emissions include mercury — the herons on Watts Bar Lake can’t read or heed the don’t-eat-the-contaminated-fish warnings — and deadly microparticulates that clog tiny but crucial passages in our lungs.
The coal-fired plant has improved the convenience and ease of our lives, but it is a major contributor to the unhealthy haze that mars the views in and around the Great Smoky — or as the locals say, Great Smoggy — Mountains. It also is a contributor to another kind of pollution. It provides the power that we switch on to light up the night and, unintentionally, hide the stars.
In most of this country, we are glaringly reckless in our littering with light pollution. Here in the East, we are largely ignorant of what we have lost as a result.
I will not pit the beauty of my Eastern mountains against my Western desert — lush green hills versus canyons built of ash and sand; rhododendron versus cliffrose. I love them both. I have chosen both. Geographical bigamy is not a crime.
But when it comes to stars, the West is the winner.
Even small towns in Arizona have taken steps to shield lighting and help keep in sight the starry blankets that comfort people like me. For me and my friends out West, the night skies were to be celebrated and lingered under. Meteor showers were like unofficial holidays. We’d mark them on our calendars, and when the long-awaited events arrived, we’d grab blankets, flasks and thermoses and head for darkness.
We’d recline in groups — every head pointed in a different direction, every perspective different. Sometimes, quiet, thoughtful conversations emerged from the dark. More often, the night simply dissolved into choruses of ooooohhs and ahhhhhs.
Tired faces gave away the most exuberant celebrants the next morning. Even among strangers, we recognized each other. Recently, under cloudy skies, I sat in front of the glow of a computer screen and longed for the stars. I looked up my favorite major meteor showers: the Perseids of August, the Leonids of November.
I won’t see them — not this year — but I take comfort in knowing that someone will. As I scrolled through the text, my thoughts drifted to the heavens, and then West, to my comrades and our simple, starry celebrations. And with the gloom of gray skies as heavy as ever outside my window, I prayed that my friends would always have stars in their eyes.
Terri Likens is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She recently moved from Arizona to Tennessee.