There’s something so magical about the night sky. Yes, the millions of glowing balls of fire above our heads, so far away that we perceive them as only twinkles in a sea of darkness, are astounding to think about. And yes, there’s no act more humbling than staring into space and comparing yourself to the scale of the universe. But the true gift of the night sky lies in something much harder to articulate: the magic of the unknown.
Just like our expansive oceans, with points deeper than Earth’s tallest mountains above sea level, we know very little about outer space. The vast majority of space matter is unidentified; we know it’s there based on its gravitational pull on other matter, but we can’t see it with our eyes. This dark matter is second only to dark energy, which is causing the universe to accelerate in its expansion, a forward feedback loop with its feet permanently off the brakes. Yet here we are, nice and cozy on our Earth, rarely stopping to gaze up into the night sky and wonder about everything that remains to be discovered.
In bustling Ann Arbor, though, looking up into the sky will reward you with a fuzzy haze of gray. Between lamp posts on South University, streetlights on State Street and the glow from buildings bordering the Diag, light pollution blocks the gems of the sky so effectively that it’s hard to even make out what you’re missing. But I’m always looking, trying to catch a glimpse. Whether on a bright fall afternoon, cloud-covered, misty day or warm summer night, my first instinct upon stepping outside is to gaze up, take a deep breath and smile in solitude. To know that it’s just you and that beckoning expanse above, if only for a moment, is the best form of therapy.
Growing up in the metro-Detroit area has given me very few chances to see the night sky in all its glory without ambient light washing everything out. The most memorable time happened to be two weeks ago, in the depths of Acadia National Park in Mount Desert Island, Maine. At 8 p.m., I sat wiped-out in the backseat of my family’s rental car, my legs quaking slightly from trekking all day and my Circadian clock disoriented by the early sunsets on the eastern-most state of the East Coast. The endorphins from earlier in the day had faded away, leaving me with an empty but peaceful feeling in my stomach, something close to gratitude for being alive, though I couldn’t place my finger on the emotion at the time.
Our destination? Sand Beach in the heart of Acadia, always populated by tourists and locals alike. New pairs of feet continually trampled the sand below, only to have their footprints washed away by the roaring Atlantic in an instant. Sand is a deceiving name: Shell fragments make up the majority of the soft earth, teeming microorganisms are littered throughout the rest. During the day, one can clearly make out the looming granite rocks rising on either side of the sand stretch, forming a small bay with calm waters. At night, it’s a whole different story.
The wooden steps felt foreign under my feet as I descended in the darkness: My feet had forgotten that I’d taken the same path the day before in broad, piercing daylight. Everywhere I looked was shrouded with intense darkness. The only color I could make out was jet black, putting even the poignant black of ink cartridges to shame. We stumbled onto the beach, faintly able to make out the mound of people in the distance. Everyone else had brought a blanket, some were cuddling under sleeping bags. We sat on the bare sand, letting it fill our shoes and seep through the gaps in our clothes. If you’re going to stargaze on the beach, best to do it right, no boundaries necessary.
There was light, just not the kind one might expect. All I had to do was look up and the night sky shone upon me, glad that my eyes had finally found its destination. Millions of stars danced in the night, teasing me, inviting me to dance with them. The broad band of the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon, home to millions of stars, planets and us, the Earth. Park rangers pointed out dozens of constellations smiling down at us. I smiled back up at them. This world has always been there, waiting for the right moment, the right place, to show itself. Seconded only to the total solar eclipse of 2017, I’d never beheld anything like it.
I can only grasp at memories of that night, close my eyes and let the stars that fill my mind push all my lingering thoughts away. Whenever I get the chance to gaze again, I know they’ll be waiting.