Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Night Sky

One of the best things about being here is walking in starlight.  It is best on nights like tonight when there is no moon at all, but in June the real, dense dark is brief.  I have been pleased to discover that wunderground.com gives the precise times of the successive deepenings of darkness:

Ordinary sunset tonight will be at 9:08 p.m, sunrise tomorrow morning at 5:30.  But of course at those times, especially under a sky this clear, it's bright enough to read a small-type King James Bible.

The more meaningful darknesses begin with Civil Twilight, "The time period when the sun is no more than 6 degrees below the horizon at either sunrise or sunset. The horizon should be clearly defined and the brightest stars should be visible under good atmospheric conditions (i.e. no moonlight, or other lights). One still should be able to carry on ordinary outdoor activities."  Civil twilight tonight will set in at 9:46 and return at 4:52.

Next comes Nautical Twilight, "The time period when the sun is between 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon at either sunrise or sunset. The horizon is not defined and the outline of objects might be visible without artificial light. Ordinary outdoor activities are not possible at this time without extra illumination."  So we will lose the horizon and the outline of objects tonight at 10:36, and have them back, should we wish to witness the redefinition of visible shape, at 4:01 a.m.

The advent of real black darkness is known as Astronomical Twilight, and at this time of year you have to stay up late to receive its velvet embrace--a comfort which comes to most of us with a little chill of ancient fear.  Tonight's deep night will last only from 11:45 p.m. to 2:53 a.m., barely more than three hours.

The moon plays her part beautifully tonight, by not appearing at all.  In the stage of "waxing crescent," only the moon's black face is turned to us, and in any case today's moonrise was at 5:43 in the morning, and the moon will set at 9:09--one minute after the sun.

It seems like a time for any kind of seriousness--for fear, for gladness, for love, for gratitude, for ghosts and grief, for wishes and hope.  For me, most often, such specificities fade, as I walk in the starlit dark, into a stillness, an interior stillness, which in turn, sometimes, effloresces in an opening of the physical senses.  Sometimes then it seems time to stop walking, to sit down and just to listen, smell, feel, breathe.  The darkness is not dark, the stillness is not still, the quiet is not silent.  After a while I get cold, and it's time to walk again, home.
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Well, that's the  dreamer's vision, before he set foot outside.  Here's the event.  First of all, what the Weather Underground tells us is going to be loss of horizon, black dark, objects invisible at 11:45--ha!--is nothing of the kind.  Here in Greater Metropolitan Melville even at midnight the sunset is streaking the western sky with orange and purple.  To the east, a sickly brownish sodium-vapor dome, given sufficient humidity, hangs over Billings; the humidity may well be composed of gases from the oil refineries there.  But there is a lot of natural vapor in the air as well, sufficient that the stars do not shine at the horizon as they do on a perfect night.  Oh, and a neighbor has put up a light on a pole of such candlepower that even at a third of a mile away it's like staring into the headlamp of a truck on bright.  What for, what for, out here in nowhere?  Do they think it will keep coyotes away from their sheep?  (It won't.)  Then there are the planes, half a dozen of which are visible at any given moment, and the satellites, which I now see as somehow naturalized, so politely silent as they are, skimming behind invisible clouds like spirits.  I know, I know a lot of them are junk, I know that when I'm looking at some of them so benignantly they're actually looking at me not benignantly at all.  I willfully employ them as reminders to force a form of belief on myself, in the same way that I pray aloud in church, repeating words I don't believe in order at least to occupy the shape of belief.  In our damaged world, in our imperfect starlight, we must walk in a certain degree of illusion, must we not?  This may be the closest to perfect starlight I will ever see, and I had better love it while I have it, and the closest to velvet dark.

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