At home with the oil rigs

by Cameron Walker

Coming down from Gaviota Pass, it's the ocean I see first. But I look past the waves and ignore the distant Channel Islands, searching for the landmarks that tell me I'm really home. When I fly, my eyes search for these other islands, too, as we bank and straighten out, bound for the runway.

They are not the sort of islands you might imagine. They don't have beautiful names like Anacapa and Santa Rosa, or national parks, or blue whales or rare foxes. The things that make me feel most at home are the oil rigs.

Twenty platforms, gray and stork-legged from the shore, sit in the Santa Barbara Channel. In 1969, one dumped 100,000 barrels of crude into these waters. The spill ignited a local movement that some consider the start of nationwide interest in the environment.

And yet, I love the rigs, particularly after sunset, when they become little oases of orange sparkle on the dark sea. (We have occasionally told visitors that the one on the left is an offshore casino, but have stopped short of selling them boat tickets.) But I've always been slightly embarrassed by my appreciation of them.

So I was relieved when another writer confessed that he'd always been fond of the rigs, too. He told me he was "a sucker for big industrial engineering," able to admire a structure's mechanical splendor even if its purpose was not as noble as he wished.

I don't think it's the engineering that attracts me, though. I used to paddle outrigger canoes, and one of our races took us closer to the rigs than I'd ever been before. As they loomed larger, their appeal diminished. Their gray bulk became a paler blue, their legs appeared both more massive and more spindly. Frightening and fragile at once -- or perhaps that was just how I felt in the boat, as I carefully positioned my body so we wouldn't capsize.

The first time I remember seeing the rigs, I was sticky from a long drive and had cracked the windows to get a breath of ocean air. And then there they were, the smallest of lights -- and something cracked inside me, and was remade.

I wonder if the lights of the rigs serve as my substitute for stars. We can see stars here, of course, the familiar constellations of the Big Dipper and Orion, when the moon is waning. But our nights are often soaked with fog, and my house is close to others and to a brightly lit stadium. The only time I remember the sky filling with the salty scatter of the Milky Way was for a few hours after a storm, when the sky had cleared but the power in our neighborhood was still out.

But can I really love these distant, deceitful, industrial gleams as much as people love stars? I wrote to William Kelly, a psychologist at Pennsylvania's Robert Morris University, about whether there could be some connection between the night sky and these earthbound imitations.

Kelly has come up with a word for the love of the night sky: noctcaelador. For the past 10 years, he's been looking at how to measure this idea, and also studied how and why the love of the night sky might develop.

He hasn't studied oil rigs or other artificial glimmers, but I asked him to guess, and so he did. He speculated that the attraction might be hardwired in our brains. Throughout the ages, the night sky has inspired everything from calendars to religion, he said. Along the way, the human psyche may have started relying on and identifying with the points of light above our heads, our eyes using them as anchors in the endless expanse of sky. "Maybe unconsciously, when we see a beautiful array of lights, some ancient part of ourselves gets activated," he said, "just like it does when we're looking at the night sky."

There is another place I feel I belong. It's a camp in the Sierra that my family started visiting when I was six. In college, I worked on the camp staff. This summer, I returned for the first time in more than a decade, with my own young family in tow. Everything essential was unchanged -- the butterscotch smell of the Jeffrey pine, the swirls of dust on the paths, the burble of the creek, and particularly, the easy camaraderie among the people there.

Yet there was something missing, something just beyond the edge of my vision. I chalked it up to the difference between being a carefree kid and being the parent of carefree kids hopped up on bug juice and marshmallows and mountain air.

On the last night, everyone went to bed early, and my husband and I sat outside the tent. The moon had been full at the beginning of the week, and this was the first time we'd really looked up to the patch of sky between the treetops.

There they were, all the stars that I'd grown up with. And I felt the same way that I do when I see the rigs at last. Home, something inside me said. I'm home again.

Cameron Walker writes about science and travel from Santa Barbara, California.

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