Beneath the Galactic Core
I want to see stars. I want to see the Milky Way so bright it casts shadows. I want to see galaxies and nebulae. With my own eyes.
I need a dark sky. Darker.
I went into a cave once. Whitings Neck. Everyone turned off their lights, phones, and cameras. It went black. Like a physical blow of darkness. People gasped in a moment of stillness. Primal darkness. You couldn’t see anything or anyone, not even yourself. Nada. Pitch. If you closed your eyes you’d see those weird phantom signals, which is to say that it was darker at that moment in that cave than it is when you close your eyes in the dark. No lie.
Sometimes when you go camping or you’re out past the suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas, it gets dark. You see more stars than you ever imagined existed. Bright and clear and humbling.
I want more night sky than that. I want level one.
In the Mid Atlantic, the only place I know of that’s close to level 2 on the Bortle Scale, legally accessible, and relatively convenient is in or near the wildernesses of West Virginia. I’ve got my eye on Spruce Knob, in particular.
You have to find the right place, the right time of the night, the right weather, the right phase of the moon, and the right time of year, if you’re looking for any particular phenomenon, though.
Dark Sky Parks
Here’s the good news. Virginia now has four areas/parks that are dark sky preserves and delicious on toast.
Here’s the bad news. It looks like the legal ways to enjoy those areas are mostly organized events with limited capacity. Virginia state parks are pretty well regulated with a lot of restrictions, rules, regulations, and enforcement, for better and for worse.
There’s nothing I’d like to do more than go to Sky Meadows Park at whatever time of night it takes for the Milky Way to rise above the horizon, walk up the hill to the overlook and take nightscape photos on a moonless, cloudless night. Maybe even get a model to pose with the cosmos; do some light painting. Or get my hands on a telescope and see how far into our universe’s past I can see.
But that’s not how state parks roll. Even if you camp there overnight, you’re not supposed to leave the designated camping area. But that’s what you get for living in a society, I guess.
The etymology of the word “galaxy” is based on the word milky or milk. The “lact” in galactic is the same “lact” in lactic/lactose.-Your mom
Logistically, it’s a bit of an effort. I don’t know what I’m doing trying to photograph nightscapes, not to mention editing them. And to be honest, when I went looking for the night sky the other night, I was very uncomfortable driving around after midnight to the ends of public roads. Just me and some needlessly aggressive mosquitos. At the boat ramp stop, I could hear people in a nearby house having a conversation. Somehow, that was even weirder.
So I didn’t take many photos. It was amateur hour anyway. I set the camera on a tripod, experimented to find a shutter speed that would capture an image — 15 to 25 seconds — plus a ten second timer because pressing the shutter button subtly shakes the camera which can ruin an image. About a minute to take each photo. It was just some fun and a need to see the heavens.
Fun fact. The Earth spins. Fifteen to 25 seconds with an open shutter is long enough to cause a little bit of star trailing, where the points of starlight start turning into oblong flecks.
Experienced folks take dozens and hundreds of photos, then use special software to align and stack them. The experienced folks with gear have a motor on their tripod that moves as it tracks stars to account for the Earth’s rotation. And you have to plan, plan, plan.
I’m just a simple country lawyer trying to fathom the majesty of creation, your honor.
In all its majesty
Let me tell you about a stupid thought I had.
Sometimes when I look up at the night sky or watch videos about astrophysics, I get that “feeling small” sensation. The humbling and perspective. I think to myself: I wish more people could see this from time to time. To be blown away by the vastness of time and space.
To realize in a moment of sharpest clarity, that we exist literally on the crust of a droplet of spinning molten rocks that creates an invisible shield, hurtling through empty space around a giant ball of fire, protected by a thin, thin layer of gases in a precarious state of equilibrium. And this is it, people.
There is no other hospitable place for us to go. This is all we have and we aren’t — I don’t know — evolved enough to stop being tribal long enough to imagine how to not extinguish all life on the planet. Eventually, I mean. Asteroid, comet, sun expanding, war, whatever. Great extinctions are a regular occurrence. Maybe the cephalopods will have a better run.
If only everyone could see.
And then it dawns on me that light pollution and all of the man-made techno noise has only been around for less than two hundred years or so. I mean, indoor plumbing is about one hundred years old. The harnessing of electricity on an industrial scale, for the masses, about a hundred years.
So all of the atrocities, warring, pillaging, invading and generally sh*tty behavior throughout history and pre-history happened under night skies more brilliant than we’re ever likely to see. And a lusher earth and fecund seas, too.
Maybe a cosmic perspective is not the panacea to the human condition. But it’s not without its magic. Not without its charms. And not without its power.
We came from that. I came from that. We’re related.