No.60, 2008 Star Light, Star Bright by Kay Parley (SK)
We may still experience black velvet nights in the Saskatchewan countryside, but it isn’t the same as it was before electricity came to the farms. In those days, the earth seemed to envelop us in security and peace. Not that nights were really black; often there were deep purple blues in the sky, light enough to show the silhouettes of trees. When the moon was full, night was almost like day.
Electric lights always meant a town and we never confused the stars with yard lights or the lighted windows of homes. Now there are fewer of us who remember the difference between electricity and coal oil lighting, when the only way you knew you were coming to a farm at night was by the soft light shining from the window. Lamps were warmer and gentler than electric bulbs. If more than one window was lighted, the poorest dwelling could appear amiable as a Christmas card. Someone might be coming or going in the barnyard with a lantern in his hand, the patch of light from the swinging lantern moving with him as he walked. It was a magic glow.
Those milder lights never interfered with the lights of the firmament. The skies paraded Orion and the Big Dipper in a glorious display and our highways had not yet become bright rivers in motion, interfering with the treasures above. Often the stars seemed to be snapping, sending mysterious telegraphic messages to earth to let us know the universe was all safely in place.
It is shocking to realize there are people in the world today whose eyes have been so conditioned to artificial light they actually cannot see the stars when they have the chance. Man has pushed back the darkness until the real jewels are disappearing. We are losing one of earth’s richest treasures. Parts of Europe, Japan, and the eastern part of North America are blazing with so much artificial light they are visible from space. The night view of Toronto that has been used by CBC News is truly breathtaking. Or is it?
In 2002, I read a story by Matthew Jackson in Saskatchewan Naturally, in which he told of sitting out in the Cypress Hills to watch “billions upon billions of stars sparkle across a perfect prairie sky.” That took me back.
When I was very small, I lived on a farm near Deveron elevator, south of Summerberry. My parents or my aunt would carry me outside on a starry night and show me the splendour of the milky way. They taught me how to find the north star and explained what it meant to those who were lost. Sometimes we had the northern lights, shimmering pale green fans across the sky.
But I moved to the city when I was 15 and I admit, regretfully, that I never really saw the stars again. Star-gazing was just not something city people did. Besides, the streetlights interfered. Now, the glow that hovers above a city effectively obscures the stars. The only heavenly body really visible is the full moon, and it has a very hard time competing.
Some years ago, I overnighted with friends who lived on a farm three miles from the place where I was raised. Just as I was putting out the light and preparing to go to bed, something made me look out the window. I reeled. I was looking at the very sky I had known as a child, and I was seeing it from almost the same location. Caught by the wonder of it, I grabbed a pencil and wrote:
I saw the stars of Deveron
In a velvet country sky,
And they took me back to peace again
And days of you and I.
They took me back to sanity
And hope, and gentle days
That in my few short years back then
I thought would last always.
I saw the stars of Deveron
Like planets in the blue,
And I realized I’d wished on them
And the wishes were for you.
But was it many ages gone?
Long decades it must be,
When I last saw stars in Deveron
It was nineteen thirty-three.
I did not know, at that time, that others were re-discovering the magic and would soon be doing something about it. It was not until I read the August 2002 issue of Harrowsmith that I learned of the dark-sky movement and discovered there were at least three dark-sky reserves in Canada: Manitoulin Island, Torrance Barrens in Muskoka, Ont., and McDonald Park near Abbotsford, B.C. Some communities have discussed doing away with streetlights, which is not the safest solution. Cut-off lights are the answer. They contain mirrors to direct light just where it is needed and stop wasting it on the sky. They are expensive to install, but they save on energy and are environmentally friendly. Something has to be done. The health-minded are realizing that light pollution is having serious effects on sleep habits and the health of wild life.
In December, 2002, the United Church Observer carried an article on the dark-sky movement and the incalculable loss of the night sky. I read the article and began to wake up. In spite of lighted towns and lighted farm yards, Saskatchewan still has countless places where the jewels continue to twinkle. Our lake resorts are among the most dramatic places to enjoy starlight. In a world growing desperate for the sight of stars, where people are spending tourist dollars to go to the dark-sky reserves, most of Saskatchewan is a dark-sky reserve. A little investment could turn vast areas of the province into a place really worthy of the name “Land of Living Skies.” We have been promoting our glorious sunsets and unequalled cloudy skies and forgetting the greatest wealth of all.
As the movers and shakers call for more industrialization and our cities grow larger, there must be a few small towns ready to capitalize on this greatest of all our natural wonders.
The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, www.rasc.ca
International Dark-Sky Association, www.darksky.org