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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.