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The Cracker Barrel: Lights out

Visitors to our home in the woods - especially visitors from more densely settled places - often comment on how many stars are visible here. For years, we've taken modest satisfaction from their words, thinking ourselves fortunate, knowing we'd rather see stars than city lights.

Only recently, however, have we begun to understand just how fortunate we are.

In an article excerpted in the UTNE READER, Arthur Upgren addressed the issue of light pollution. Noting that while the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977 established daytime visibility as an environmental goal of national priority, Upgren points out that our night skies have had no such protection.

"The post-World War II growth of the U.S. population and mushrooming development in the countryside have brought with them an unchecked surge of light pollution," he writes. "The sky above a typical suburban neighborhood is now about five to ten times as bright as the natural sky; over city centers, it may be as much as 25 to 50 times as bright as its natural level."

Astronomers especially are concerned by the rising levels of artificial light. The Mount Wilson observatory in southern California, a major facility with a 100-inch reflecting telescope, has, according to Upgren, been rendered virtually worthless for deep-space work by the growth of Los Angeles.

Even the large observatories on Hawaii's Mauna Kea, almost 14,000 feet above sea level and one of the world's most pristine astronomical sites, are beginning to feel the effects of light pollution.

But the loss of the night sky extends to all of us.

Since the beginning of recorded history, the starry heavens have inspired rapture and wonder in the human spirit. Golden stars in a midnight-blue sky adorn the ceilings of ancient Egyptian temples. The desire to sight and make sense of star movements spurred the building of Stonehenge.

From the book of Genesis on to contemporary poems and love lyrics, from the Anasazi petroglyphs through the magnificent paintings of Van Gogh, stars have stirred the human heart in profound and mysterious ways.

We rely upon them for a sense of our place in the universe, and use them for emotional as well as physical navigation. Standing so steadfast, their movements so predictable, they calm our commotions and temper our triumphs.

Yet for millions of people, the stars have literally become invisible.

"Under ideal conditions," writes Upgren, "the sky is crowded with visible stars, about 2,500 in all, that loom large and close and extend to the horizon in all directions. If there is no haze, the Milky Way, too, will stretch all the way to the horizon.

"That sight is granted now to fewer than 10 percent of all Americans. Even in a thinly populated suburb or a small village, much is lost: the contrast and delicate details in the Milky Way, the vast number of stars, and the sense that the stars are large and nearby. In a moderately illuminated suburb, the night sky has only 200 to 300 visible stars. In large cities, people are lucky if they can see more than a few dozen."

In place of stars, we now have streetlamps and yard lights and brightly lit signs. We are well on our way to replacing nature with yet another form of virtual reality at an enormous cost to our energy reserves, the environment and forthcoming generations.

Might there come a day when, having lost sight of the last of our guiding lights, we find that we have lost our way?

Collections of Craig Nagel's columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.

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