Winter 2001, Volume 18.2
A Gift of Stars
John Nizalowski teaches creative writing and composition at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colorado. His work has appeared in Weber Studies, Bloomsbury Review, Albany Review, Blueline, Harp, The Listening Eye, and elsewhere. He is currently an associate editor for Pinyon and a contributing editor at Inside/Outside Southwest.
A crescent moon hung in the western sky, the red eye of Mars floated above it, Scorpio's hook bisected the southern horizon, and I was celebrating a clear August night as I have since I was twelve—in the back yard with my four and a quarter inch diameter reflecting telescope pointed to the heavens.
Of course many details have changed since my youth. I now live in western Colorado instead of upstate New York, and I have two young daughters who join me in peering at the great, luminous night. My back yard is no longer free of light pollution as it had been on New York's Allegany Plateau. Nor do thousands of fireflies create the earth's flashing echo of the summer stars. However, the most significant difference between eastern and western stargazing is the vastly superior clarity of the skies beyond the 100th meridian. Even here in the outskirts of Delta, a town of 5,000, there are objects I can see with the naked eye—several open star clusters and a nebula in Sagittarius, for instance—that I could only have spotted with binoculars in the humid and dust ridden East. And when I journey to a place like Utah's Barrier Canyon, the clear night sky becomes overwhelming in its intensity, a wondrous benefit of the high desert air.
My first trip West initiated me into this intensity. My wife Patricia and I were making a nighttime crossing of Idaho on U.S. 20, and somewhere past Hill City we pulled over for a break. When I stepped out of our pick-up, I felt stunned, as if I were St. Paul struck by a mystical vision. It was early September, and the Milky Way rode high in the sky, its glow so vivid it nearly cast shadows. And while Sagittarius had almost set, its rich spray of stars still filled the southern horizon with thousands of tiny, brilliant lights—blue, white, red, and yellow. An entire life of witnessing eastern nights had not prepared me for the desert sky's almost paranormal beauty.
Delta's evening sky is far more humble than those of Idaho's high deserts, but its clarity still impresses me, even with the scattering of street lights around my home. Also, our elder apricot tree shelters us from town's worst glare and forms a good patch of proper stargazing darkness in the back yard.
Thus I stood in that old tree's shade on that August night with my daughters, gazing up at a visual feast. The horns of the moon were sharply defined as its crescent slid towards the neighbor's ponderosa pine. A few days before, though not visible in Colorado, this moon had occluded the sun, creating the millennium's last eclipse. Soon, the annual Leonid meteor shower would contribute thousands of bright streaks to accompany this powerful newborn moon.
While waiting for the meteors to streak across the sky, we studied the night through the telescope. First we gazed at the moon's craters and mountains, their shadows deep and sharply defined in the crescent phase. Next came the fuzzy rust spot of Mars, complete with tiny white ice caps; and the bright blue-white stars of M 55, an open cluster in Sagittarius. Finally, I turned the telescope's long gray tube on the Milky Way, and after my daughters peered at that unending path of light, transformed into thousands of stars by the telescope's sorcery of lenses and mirrors, I told them a coyote story adapted from Navajo mythology.
Near the beginning of time, Coyote the Trickster was wandering up and down in the world when he came across First Man and First Woman placing tiny lights in the night sky from a pile of shimmering motes resting on their rug.
"What are you doing?" Coyote asked.
"Putting the stars in the sky," First Man replied.
"May I help?"
"Of course. But you must carefully position each star in its proper place. It will take a long, long time, and you must be very patient."
"I can handle that," Coyote foolishly declared. "Show me what to do."
Soon Coyote was helping First Man and First Woman with their exacting task. Slowly, precisely, he would use his jaws to carry a bright star from the pile and drop it, still glowing, where it belonged in the sky.
But after a time, his jaws began to burn, and his shoulders to ache. The sky was still very dark, and the star pile seemed no smaller than when he started. Finally, he could bear the task no longer. Grabbing the rug in his teeth, he gave it a great shake and scattered the remaining stars into the night.
And that is how Coyote created the great white road of the Milky Way.
After completing the story of Coyote's flung stars, I retired to the crab apple tree's hammock and stared up at infinity, while Ursula and Isadora sketched with blue and red pencils the sights they had seen through the telescope. Four citronella candles, arranged in an arc, illuminated the girls' note pads, so while their drawings were rather rough, they themselves formed a wonderful portrait, their earnest faces and blonde hair lit from beneath by that warm yellow glow which makes candlelight so distinct from electric light.
The moon set and the girls finished their sketches. Hoping to see some meteorites, Ursula climbed to the top of the molded plastic play set and scanned the skies like some ancient astronomer on a Chaldean platform. Isadora, joining me on the hammock, snuggled in my lap, and we gently rocked back and forth, staring past the web of branches at the starry sky beyond. Our hammock based vigil was a lazy version of Ursula's diligent Mesopotamian methods, and sure enough, she saw three meteorites to our one. But even our few were impressive—their bright, thin streaks bisecting the heavens, some with blue trails of surprising luminescence, and all formed from cosmic dust particles smaller than a child's marble.
The skies of the West have presented me with many such marvels. One spring, while camping in the Coronado National Forest southeast of Tucson, I was stunned to see yellow and red wings of light in the night sky—aurora borealis, a very rare event that far south, and one considered an ill omen by the Zuni. On another night years later, I saw an eclipsed moon's blood red eye hovering over a rock spire in Utah's Professor Valley. And perhaps the most wondrous sight of all was comet Hale-Bopp's luminous blue ball and long sweep of tail floating in silent mystery above the dark, humped mass of Colorado's Uncompahgre Plateau.
But the West is changing. Its population is burgeoning, bringing increased light pollution from its bursting cities. Also, the West's air quality is diminishing. Power plants like the multi-stacked coal burning behemoth at Page, Arizona, and the vast maze of flames and pipelines that blanket natural gas fields like those which surround Aztec, New Mexico, thrust tons of particulate matter into the once pure desert winds. Add to this the exhaust from all the automobiles needed to transport the West's new citizens and the result is increasingly murky skies.
A recent poll revealed that nearly seventy percent of western National Park Service managers describe light pollution as a problem. For instance, at Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, city glow reaches thirty degrees above the horizon.
So, while the central argument for increasing the West's national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas is, of course, the preservation of the land's beauty and habitat, many Westerners, from disgruntled backpackers to heads of major observatories, are beginning to focus on the need to preserve the sky's clarity. The pure blue vistas which reveal the craggy details of a mountain range one hundred miles away, or a night sky so transparent it allows the naked eye to perceive distant galaxies and globular clusters, are just as important to the soul as red sandstone canyons unscarred by jeep trails or a mountain free of clear cutting.
Also, in the same way that the near extinction of a species can indicate a serious problem with habitat viability, the night sky can act as a warning of impending ecological disaster—a coal mine canary as big as the horizon itself.
On the summer solstice of 1999, about an hour after sunset, I was crossing the Dallas Divide, a pass between the Sneffels Range and the Uncompahgre Plateau in western Colorado, when I saw an odd apparition to the northwest. Pulling over, I stood by the highway's edge, and peered at a set of long high clouds that hovered over the soft curve of Horsefly Peak. They gleamed with seeming phosphorescence, and I thought perhaps the lingering sun, now over the earth's rim, was illuminating some far off cirrus formation. With their blue and silver gleam, like neon signs in the near darkness, the clouds were a sight wondrous and strange.
And, as it turns out, dangerous.
Three days later, The Denver Post ran an article by Ann Shrader entitled "Rare Clouds May Predict Dim Future." In it, Shrader describes noctilucent clouds, a peculiar, high altitude formation that were indeed the luminous objects I had seen from Dallas Divide.
Gary Thomas, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado whom Shrader interviewed, notes that for a century, noctilucent clouds have been solely the denizens of skies as far north as Scotland and Nova Scotia. But in 1998, visitors at Wyoming's Yellowstone Park spotted the clouds, and by 1999 they had migrated as far south as Colorado.
Thomas finds this disturbing, since noctilucent clouds are a sign that methane and carbon dioxide, the same agricultural and industrial gases that produce global warming in the lower atmosphere, have reached such high levels of concentration that they are disrupting the upper atmosphere by cooling it down. Therefore, those neon blue clouds I'd seen from a 9,000 foot high mountain pass were not sublime rarities of nature to be appreciated for their beauty, but warning flags, a flick of coyote's tail betraying man's progressive assault on the atmosphere and the potentially disastrous consequences on the climate. For, like coyote shaking the blanket full of stars, we have acted impatiently with our world, disturbing it and placing it in danger. And without a clear sky, we would not be able to witness the warning and take heed.
The night had turned cold, and no amount of snuggling could keep Isadora warm as we gently swung in our crab tree hammock. Also, Ursula was growing restless on her red plastic Babylonian ziggurat. It was time to go in. I rolled out of the hammock, somehow landing on my feet with Isadora in my arms. Ursula slid down her ziggurat's slide, a method of departing a pyramid I'm sure unknown to ancient astronomers. The girls trundled off to the kitchen's warmth, and I blew out the candles. After the screen door slammed, I was left with a pool of darkness and the night's quiet sounds—the click of crickets, the haunting call of nighthawks, and the far off whisper of traffic on U.S. 50.
Before packing up the telescope, I took one last look at the summer stars—Deneb, Altair, Vega, Sador, and the rest—and I prayed that when my daughters have their own families, and they bring their children to Utah's desert canyons or to Colorado's pine and aspen heights, that humankind will have learned to avoid coyote's impatience and greed, and that my children and grandchildren will look up into a pristine darkness filled with the piercing glory of First Man's and First Woman's gift of stars.