Published on November 28th, 2013 | by Chris Campbell1
Dark Skies Revive Cosmic Wonder
Almost two-thirds of the U.S. population resides where they cannot see the stars of the Milky Way at night. This is a problem. And it is being solved one Dark Sky Park at a time.
“I had been working throughout the community sharing stories of the night sky for many years…at area youth camps, through the newspaper, at the community college, anywhere I could find an audience,” tells Mary Adams, who upped her efforts and founded a Dark Sky Park in the astounding wilderness of Northern Michigan.
CC: To begin, can you give a compressed snapshot of what constitutes a Dark Sky Park?
MA: A dark sky park is an area of land that possesses exceptional starry skies and a natural nocturnal habitat where light pollution is mitigated and natural darkness is recognized as an important educational, cultural, scientific, and health-restoring natural resource.
The designation as an International Dark Sky Park protects the night sky as a vast, and vanishing, resource; it is made by the International Dark Sky Association in Tucson, AZ. (Darksky.org)
Sky unpolluted by light. Image by Enokhem.
Sky polluted by light. Image by mpov.
CC: I read the following sentiment of yours:
“Natural darkness is good for the health and well-being of human beings and of nature. It gives us an opportunity to pause and think that we don’t only need to be concerned about the quality of our water and our air, but also another resource that belongs to all of us – the night sky.”
Your words made me think…if our water and air contain impurities, our bodies show signs of ailment. However, it’s trickier to recognize the connection between a lack of exposure to the night sky and a shriveled sense of awe. So how precisely does a human’s consciousness suffer when not exposed to a clear, unaltered night sky? And how does the night sky resuscitate our wonder?
MA: Research is finally starting to show the harmful effects of over exposure to artificial light on human health and well-being. Specifically with regard to suppressed melatonin production, which results in the sleep disorders pervading our culture. Sleep disorder is linked to every major illness that is ailing contemporary cultural. So this is a huge issue.
But, your question, and the quote you included, is aimed at something more elusive than physical health. It is a reference to the life of our imagination. By which I do not mean made-up fantasies, but the capacity of the human being to encounter the unknown and engage with it through clear thinking.
Image by obinwazota.
When we surrender to the beauty of a star-filled sky, something begins to stir within. That something is essential to our capacities as thinking beings, and when that experience is crowded out by fear of the dark, and a lack of experience in natural darkness, then the imagination begins to suffer and we can’t think the new thoughts that will answer the challenges of our times.
It is not a dictate coming to us from the world outside of us. Rather, it is how we reconcile the challenges and encounter the unknown within ourselves.
CC: Your answer had me thinking of Carl Sagan’s quote: ‘we make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.’ Anyhow, you spent two years of your life transforming this idea into reality. Your proposal was thorough, you gained significant community support, and the Emmet County Board of Commissioners allotted 600 acres for the Headlands International Dark Sky Park. What’s the property like?
MA: It is 600 acres of old growth forest situated along the Straits of Mackinac where they sweep south into Lake Michigan.
We have the gorgeous bonus of being situated on one of the nation’s most beautiful lakes, over which no light shines. The water reflects sunlight, moonlight, and starlight…splashing it up onto the shore where stories have been told and ceremonies held for centuries.
First, it was a gathering place for the tribes of people native to this land, then for French missionaries, fur traders, the English, commercial mariners and recreational boaters.
The meeting of people in this area throughout history is a testament to the beauty of natural meetings that take place here between land, lake and sky. Because the starlight can reach the Earth here in this non-light polluted area, there is a magic quality, a sense of things as they were meant to be, and still can be.
(Ample donations have outfitted the park with telescopes, telescope pads, and an observatory dome – with the observatory’s base soon to follow. And, volunteers of all ages are instigating a boom in public educational outreach).
Image by Robert Steven Connett.
CC: You seem like a wonderful badass! Full of vigor and energy! And, you’re very familiar with star lore. Let’s talk about that next. What is the extent of the information contained in the stars? What is the most interesting part about existing as a human with a cosmic perspective?
MA: I love the description ‘wonderful badass’!
In my perspective, everything that we encounter on the Earth is rooted in the stars. We can start with the greatest examples of architecture, art, literature, agriculture, science…the highest reaches and greatest successes in each of these areas have always resulted from striving to understand our connection to, and our place in, the celestial environment.
And, rather than considering ancient or indigenous cultures as being afraid of celestial phenomenon, I prefer to consider their approach as being participatory with the natural environment, which includes the celestial environment. What would it be like if we had a participatory view of our environment? Would we blast rockets into the Moon, would we frack the bedrock to release gas from the Earth, etc.?
Image by Alex Ponce.
CC: Why do the stars fascinate you so? Can you trace your celestial enamorment back to one cause/moment? Or was it a courtship that budded over time?
(Note: the following is but a portion of Mary’s fascinating reply – if you would like to read her unabbreviated response please email firstname.lastname@example.org with Dark Sky Park Transcript in the subject line.)
MA: This is a challenging question, and I wish I could trace my engagement with the stars back to one specific moment, but such is not the case. There have been, rather, several exceptional moments that were like a veil being lifted from an on-going relationship.
The first dates back to my ninth year. I received the gift of a book of puzzles and random information as a birthday gift. I was sitting in my closet (favorite place for childhood research), and I opened the book to the back pages to find a calendar that listed events in history on various dates throughout the year.
I was awestruck with the realization that it was possible to know what happened on every day of the year throughout history – as though there was a mighty script that was knowable, and more importantly, readable.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, this ‘script’ is written out by the movements of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars, and with the mechanism of a calendar, these celestial movements can be connected with historical events in the history of humanity, not in a causal way, more in a simultaneous way. The link between the celestial gestures and the calendar is where the consciousness of the human being gets to engage.
The Rheokinetic Evolution of the Cosmos: The Burian 1956 Coal Swamp plus Hubble Deep Space. Featured image by Raiscalle Rabbit.
Second, I remember standing with my mom by the horse fence next to our house in the country and she had a two-layered transparent bowl with star patterns on the outside and a horizon image on the inside. It was adjustable to time and date, and I watched her swivel the bowl and look up at the sky and I just imitated her, still not awake to the seeds being planted.
Third, I am the seventh of eight children, born after my mom left the Catholic Church. As a result, I was never baptized and was raised without any kind of forced religious training. This made it possible for me to encounter the religions of my friends from a place of freedom rather than duty.
CC: What do you most fear?
MA: Not having enough time in my life to fully root the cultural/humanities-based aspect of star knowledge side-by-side with the science of the day.
And, the idea that non-biological intelligence will overtake/replace human intelligence (as proposed by the ‘singularity’ folks like Ray Kurzweil), and the idea that the only way forward with human civilization is through the colonization of other planets (ala Stephen Hawking). Both of these approaches diminish the nobility and integrity of being human, in my view of things.
CC: What is your dreamscape like? Do you have recurring dreams or nightmares? Do you observe any connection between dreams and waking reality, between dreams and your particular celestial endeavors?
MA: I have a very active dream life, although it seems my current level of caffeine consumption is really curbing my access to deep dream states (my own diagnosis)…
Dreams, like stars, can be great indicators of where to look for resolve to some of our greater challenges and mysteries, although we have to be careful about relying on dreams and external causes. There can be perspective cues in dreams, if we know ourselves well enough. I like the quote by W.B. Yeats: “responsibility begins in dreams.”
CC: What is your relationship with technology like? What do you envision the world will be like in a hundred years? In a thousand? In what sectors of humanity do you forecast the greatest advances? The greatest stalling out?
I have a smartphone, a laptop, and wifi. I get weirded out by how reliant I am on the machines in my life, but I am also grateful to them. When my kids were small I used to flip off the main circuit breaker in my house so we could sleep without the embracing hum of electrical currents. I am still in the habit of disconnecting anything that shines a light or emits a noise into my sleeping environment/house at night.
I do not want to travel in space or colonize other planets in our system. I believe in being physically human on Earth, and though science tries to reach beyond this place in a physical way, this is not the future I want to create.
In 100 years I envision a world where our approach to natural resource management is more balanced, and that we find our way to sharing, rather than competing for resources internationally.
CC: And, while we’re looking into the future, (and to steal one from James Lipton)…if heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
MA: Well done. Now go back.
Follow the Headlands International Dark Sky Park on Facebook to get your necessary dose of cosmic wonder!