Dark Sky Magic

Aurora Borealis, the Milky Way, and my own North Star.

Well, on the strength of a sky watcher’s report yesterday that a huge sun flare could bring me Aurora Borealis joy, I spent half the night looking for northern lights, only to find out that they probably weren't going to be seen east of Whitefish Point, 100 miles away. But I didn’t know that, and the sky was clear, so between 3:30-4AM I was up watching a most spectacular starry, starry night.

I stood outside in the cold, in my jammies and robe, mesmerized by the number of stars I could see. The Milky Way, the Big and Little Dippers, Polaris—bright stars, faint stars. It's crowded up there!

We have the perfect Dark Skies viewing from our house. (See story) No light sources to dim them, and last night was as clear as I've ever seen it.

Northern lights would have been perfect but I'm glad I was awake to see the sky in all its splendor.

I slept like a baby afterwards.

This morning I remembered that I had written about our dark nights before, brought on at the time by an event seemingly unconnected. I hope you like it. As always, let me know what you think.

Share Constant Commoner

Originally published October 30, 2019. Almost exactly two years ago. I didn’t realize that until now.

I love this map of the lights from space, but I have to look really hard to make out the outline of my particular neighborhood. That’s because it’s dark up here.

Look just above the middle finger of Michigan’s mitten. See that white dot? That’s Sault Ste. Marie. It’s 60 road-miles from the mainland and to the northwest of us. See that dark area just to the southeast of it, right above Lake Huron? We’re in there somewhere.

I live on an island off of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, at about the 46th Parallel. We’re not exactly in the wilderness, but just far enough off the beaten path where city folk think we’re kind of quaint for wanting to live way out here where there’s a whole lot of nothing.

We live here precisely because it’s peaceful and quiet, and, while I like more daylight than darkness (when the days grow short, with more dark hours than daylight, we’re outta here), I would gladly pay good money for every cloudless night, when the moon is barely a silvery sliver. On those nights it’s pitch dark. On those nights magic happens.

If you pull into our driveway after dark a motion sensor will find you and light your path. When you step out of the car and head toward the house, another motion sensor will turn on a spotlight leading you to the next spotlight. And the next. If I know you’re coming, I’ll leave the porch light on for you, but otherwise it’s off. When there’s nothing moving, it’s black as night out there. It’s the way it should be in the deep woods.

Deer and coyote and even rabbits will turn on the motion detectors, but, oddly, when the lights go on, they’re not startled. They go on feeding at the compost heap as if nothing had happened. They don’t even look up. I want vision like that. I want to see what they see when the sun goes down and the woods go black on black.

I wonder if, on those nights, they ever think to look up at the sky?

On those quiet, clear, often cold nights, I bundle up and sit at the edge of the shore, where, when I face north, two tiny lights, barely visible, let me know there is another inhabited island out there, far across the bay.

To the Northwest the sky is lighter at the horizon. The glow comes from the the lights of The Twin Soos (Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, separated by the Soo Locks). There are no other towns in my vision large enough to light up the sky.

The summer people are gone and most of the cottages and cabins are closed and shuttered. There are a few dim lights along the shore, but the only other gleam I see is above me. The sky is filled with tiny glistening pin pricks. Every dot in that magical sky is light years away. I couldn’t get to any of them with the years I have left, but on these nights they seem so close I want to reach out and touch them.

On rare occasions, if I’m still awake in the early morning hours, I might see Northern Lights. But we’ve lived here for more than two decades and I can count on two hands the number of times we’ve seen them. Our TV station alerts us to possible sightings but cloud cover likes to play tricks on us. Sometimes I see a bright green glow on the horizon and I know they’re out there, under those damned clouds.

On the clearest of nights, I see the meandering path of the Milky Way. I see the Big and Little Dipper, and Polaris. The North Star.

The North Star is the anchor, the guiding light. Because it’s always where it should be, for millennia those at sea have used it to find their way.

I thought of all of this when Rep. Elijah Cummings died last week, leaving so many of us bereft and feeling adrift. It came to me when Nancy Pelosi said of him,

In the House, Elijah was our North Star. He was a leader of towering character and integrity, who pushed the Congress and country always to rise to a higher purpose, reminding us why we are here. As he said whenever he saw that we were not living up to our Founders’ vision for America and meeting the needs of our children for the future: “We are better than this.”

I live far away from the lights of Washington D.C but it doesn’t mean I’m far removed. I can live in relative darkness and still see the light. I live in a country where the citizens are still ultimately in charge and I fight every day to keep it that way.

I look up at the sky and I’m humbled by the enormity of the universe. I’m grateful that I’m alive, still a part of it, still aware of it, still in awe of it, and I know this is a fight worth fighting. I know this is a life worth living. And I’m thankful for yet another day.

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