Having grown up in the industrial West Riding of Yorkshire, I was 22 when I first saw the Milky Way. It wasn’t my fault; there was too much light pollution. In places such as this, you may think that on a moonless and cloudless night you can see the stars, but the sight is nothing in comparison to that which our ancestors had the privilege of living with.
Up to the age of 22 I actually didn’t know what the “Milky Way” was. I accepted that sometimes if I glanced upwards I could see more stars than on other nights, and I was curious about this, but that is all. My school didn’t inspire me and my ignorance continued when I graduated into the rat race. What changed for me was that I accidentally saw the Milky Way while camping at Malham in the Yorkshire Dales.
There is little light pollution in Malham, and I was fortunate to have chosen to visit on a cloudless and moonless night. My campsite was at the foot of Goredale Scar: a remote place, and quite basic by today’s standards, accepting only tents and with no electricity. One night I’d woken in my tent in the early hours in need of both a drink of water and a visit to the latrine, which meant a walk across a field to the tap and toilet block. It was upon stumbling out of my tent that I looked up and saw the majestic sight of an unpolluted night sky filled with a billion stars. Predominant and stretching above me from one edge of the earth to the other was the Milky Way. There was no-one else around and no sounds except for the tinkling of a stream and the bleating of sheep, so I didn’t go inside for a long time. It was peaceful, and it was a moment of awe.
The Milky Way is our view of our galaxy, and what we call stars are a billion other “suns” so far away from us that they seem to be single points of light. These stars are clustered more densely in a central region, and we see this as a “milky” band bisecting the sky. As light travelling through space has a finite speed, we know the distances between our earth and these stars: from the nearest it takes between twenty to thirty years for light to reach us while from others it is only just arriving after a thousand year journey. This means that when we stargaze we are looking back through a vast expanse of time as well as space.
A night sky unspoilt by light pollution is dynamic too. The Milky Way moves as the night progresses due to the earth’s rotation. Also, fifteen minutes of watching the heavens in a dark sky area will usually produce the sight of at least one, but often more shooting stars – meteors burning up as they enter the earth’s atmosphere. Then there is the aurora borealis – multi-coloured lights in the northern sky caused by charged solar particles interacting with air molecules trapped in the earth’s magnetic field. This is regularly visible from remote parts of Scotland.
There is a campaign to reduce artificial light pollution and reveal again the natural beauty of the true night sky. This almost occurred in my home town in West Yorkshire, although it had nothing to do with a desire to bring back the Milky Way. My former local authority, heavily in debt as a consequence of its own reckless financial speculations and a redistribution of government funding, suggested that they may turn off some street lights to save money. This however led to expressions of concern in the local press that such an action might increase the prevalence of accidents and crime. Doubting the credibility of both these assertions (from my time working as a policeman), I did a bit of research, and apparently when street lighting was first proposed (over one hundred years ago) it met with strong objections on two grounds. The first was that artificially illuminating the sky was unnatural and would interfere with God’s intended plan for the world. The second was that it would encourage more people to be out at night resulting in… more accidents and crime. Obviously, these objections failed and an environment of artificial lighting was created; and in one swipe the Milky Way was removed.
My former local authority decided against turning off the streetlights. The reason was essentially the same as that which drove the Victorians to generate light pollution in the first place. It had scant regard for whether the Milky Way would be lost, and everything to do with economics. During the end of the 1800s the main purpose behind deploying street lights was to facilitate the movement of workers, goods, and associated trades to and from factories before and after sunset, thus promoting continuous economic expansion. In 2016, although the factories are gone from industrial Britain, the modern workforce of West Yorkshire is still required to be out at night. It must consume, and to do this artificial lighting is there to promote activities like twenty-four hour supermarket shopping and all-hours “entertainment”. Actually, a deeper examination of this would point to these activities having a dual purpose, inasmuch as they provide a modern Bread and Circuses.
Being ignorant of what we have lost, then seeing the Milky Way for the first time can be life changing. Yes, one will be startled by its beauty. But when we take in the sight of an unpolluted night sky for just a few minutes we immediately perceive much more about our place in the world, and in the universe. Seeing the Milky Way reminds the viewer how magnificent Nature is and how he/she is just a part of a bigger existence. Thoughts also tend to our own mortality and our insignificance. In a capitalist world which inherently creates social antagonisms and encourages competition to beget power, this instant feeling of humility is a tonic for the soul. Moreover, it is the absence of experiences such as this which I believe maintains and accentuates a disconnection between human action and social and environmental responsibility. The more we have dissociated ourselves from natural beauty (such as the Milky Way), the greater becomes human apathy and indifference towards Nature. This then leads ultimately to a general consensus that we are masters of the earth and permitted to abuse it. It is as if the Victorian objectors were right, and that by shutting out the night sky economic forces were truly capturing something important; a victory that might indeed change God’s plan for the world.
Staring up at the natural, unpolluted appearance of the night sky also reconnects us with an environment where our minds are free to wander and think independently. While experiencing the Milky Way I instinctively ponder on the probability that on a distant planet there may at that same moment be some other being looking back and thinking thoughts about creatures far away but sharing a common universe. As childish as this sounds, the phenomenon is in fact more than just idle dreaming; it is evidence of the first effects of mental convalescence. Only when resting without modern stimuli such as light or noise pollution can our perceptions begin to explore without cares or worries as they did when we were children, before we became mentally enslaved. For the personal human condition the importance of this is obvious – rest and relaxation is necessary for our well-being; but there are broader implications to the human race. For many people modern life is one of (often full-stretch) striving in worthless and/or competitive activity. They are unable to think freely, and have no time after the working day for pleasurable rest free from anxiety, which means that their creativity is kept in an atrophied state. Unable to unchain creative thought, humans cannot live as they should, cannot properly formulate independent ideas and cannot innovate.
Reclaiming our right to an unpolluted night sky is therefore part of what we have to get back, and it is a major one. “Stargazers of the world unite” perhaps. But if so, how great then would be human progress if our natural creativity was encouraged to explore just a fraction of its potential, using our time not in competition but for the common good? If each night we could appreciate the beauty of the universe above us, regain some time for peace to sit and ponder on our future, connect with the past and know how our time on earth is both a gift and so very transient, I believe that each of us would not just be healthier but that the future of humanity would be much healthier too.
To see the Milky Way and appreciate the influence it can have on our lives, visit a dark sky area. These can be identified from here. Once your have found your nearest or preferred location, it is advisable to check that you visit on a night when the moon is absent (look up a moon phase calendar – there are many online). Then you just need to hope that it isn’t cloudy when you get out there. More information can also be found here.
Thanks to Gordon Mackie at Caithness Astronomy Group for the northern lights photograph.
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