Spring is galaxy season. The Milky Way winds low around the horizon leaving the thin part of the galaxy overhead making the best time to look up and out through our galaxy to other galaxies millions of light years away. The larger galaxies in this image range from 15 million to 40 million light years away. Our galaxy is estimated to be between 150,000 to 200,000 light-years in diameter making these galaxies well beyond the stars and objects inside the neighborhood of our Milky Way.
The two brightest, fuzzy objects in the right center of the screen are the elliptical galaxies M86 and M84. The two galaxies in the upper left are known as “The Eyes.”
Speaking of eyes, in 1823 Wilhelm Olbers used his to look up at night and wondered why it is dark at all.
The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Dark Sky, A Portal into Mind and Meaning.
The observatory is fifty feet to the south of the two story house. An eight-foot round dome sits on top of a square ten feet by ten feet building. The walls are stuccoed the same color as the house. The roof is sealed with a color the same as the house roof. The door and trim is near the trim colors of the house although a bit more grey. To the west of the dome twenty feet away is a prow shaped wind barrier made of cement seven feet high protecting a fourteen inch diameter cement telescope pier. All the cement is the same color as the cement foundation of the house which is satisfyingly close to the color of the red rocks and dirt it rests upon. They are simple constructions but somehow at the same time they are complexly attractive icons presenting a standing invitation.
I have called the observatory a “portal to the heavens” and that description is often enthusiastically accepted. From friends to the public, people express eagerness to see it. A couple of times I have been photographed and interviewed by Utah’s newspapers and was featured in a short film.
I wonder what exactly that attraction is. What do people expect to see? What do they want from it? Why do they ask me to come and see it? The location has to be part of it. Just outside of Capitol Reef National Park the area was originally considered to be part of the Park. In almost any other place it would be a monument or a park. Surrounded by red rock cliffs and high alpine plateaus in a rural area where dark skies at night still rule, a lot of people want to come here anyway. Getting away from the city and into the country with a chance to see the stars and Milky Way is a natural attraction, something I think that is similar to an instinct. It is, after all, what we were presented for the vast majority of our human history. Until just a hundred years ago there were no electric lights anywhere to light up the night sky and hide the stars.
On a clear, moonless night, 7,000 feet high on the Colorado Plateau, I stand in my backyard in Torrey, Utah looking at the heavens. When I shift my gaze to the ground, I realize I can see my shadow. I move my arm about to see if a shadow is really what I was seeing. The shadow moves. The night seems inky dark. There is no artificial light anywhere. I laugh under my breath. How could there be a shadow? The only light is coming from the summer Milky Way arcing overhead.
I don’t believe there are many people who have seen their shadow by starlight and that is a shame. In most of the country and much of the world people live in places where the skyglow caused by errant urban light makes it impossible to see the Milky Way. When I was born there were slightly fewer than 3 billion people on the planet. Now there are almost 8 billion and it shows in the sky. Satellite photos of the earth at night taken over the past decades show the expansion of light creeping like a fungus growing in a petri dish. As Joni Mitchell sang in my youth, Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. That dark sky over my head in Torrey is becoming a lost resource. Another vanishing piece of wildness.
My father has been an avid amateur astronomer and astro-photographer since the early 1980’s. The technology of telescopes was improving fast in those days, prices were starting to come down, and Dad was an early adapter of the new technologies. In 1986 when Halley’s comet was making its once every 75 year rounds past Earth, Dad invited a buddy and me to join him in the dark skies of southern Utah to take a look through his telescope. We went to Canyonlands, south of Moab. Standing outside his motorhome the night was thick with dark, the Milky Way swept overhead, and Halley’s hung in the middle of the south sky with its tail pointing up and away to the northwest. The view through the telescope did not disappoint and my buddy and I laughed as we tried and failed to keep the comet in the telescope’s crosshairs. I could see the attraction to Dad’s hobby but I was busy with a budding family and career and did not see the telescope again until 20 years later. By then Dad had reconverted in a fundamental way to religion and there was a growing distance between us. “I still have that old telescope, the orange tube C8,” he told me. “You can take it if you want to.” That was all the instruction I got, but I took him up on the offer.
Kirsten and I are in the banjo (a pop-up camper) heading to the Simpson Springs campground on the Pony Express road in the desert west of Salt Lake City. We need to get out and are eager to celebrate Solstice. As a double bonus, Saturn and Jupiter are going to be as visually close tonight as they have been for 400 years and will be again for another 400. Simpson Springs is remote and is typically empty. But the last time we went out this recent early summer, as this pandemic got going, the place was jammed. The whole west desert was crowded and covered in accumulating dust plumes from multitudes of RV’s and swarms of off road vehicles. As we settle in on the good dirt road heading west today we can’t see any other traffic and are hopeful the manic crowd does not have the same idea as us this time.
I remember pondering in my excellent high school civics class whether something like Nazism could happen here. The common wisdom and a pervading sense of pride and patriotism was that it could not. But the Germans I knew all seemed like good people. And smart. I look back those forty plus years and give myself credit. With trepidation I thought, sure, it could probably happen here, too.
Sadly, here we are, our constitutional democracy is crumbling under a relentless assault. Republicans today are failing in a similar manner to how decent Germans failed in the 1930’s.
Publish books with progressive ideas promoting love of the land
Promote and support women in leadership
Build a blue oasis in a red, red state
I am doing pretty well on all three. Torrey House Press is having a record year and is building a terrific staff to keep expanding its impact. I plan on raising a cool $1 million to help them further build capacity. The board, besides me, is all women and so is the staff. And to a small but hopefully useful extent I levered my observatory to help the town of Torrey, Utah become an International Dark Association certified dark sky community.
On the longest night of the year, under a full super-moon, a ritual evolves in a small Utah town.
Bluff, Utah, December 21, 2018
A full super-moon rose as complete dark enveloped a crowd gathered in the December cold around campfires and torches to celebrate the longest night of the year with art, culture, and sculptural pyrotechnics.
For those like me who are not motivated by the Christian religious myth of Christmas, Winter Solstice is the natural time to celebrate the turn of the seasons. A ritual is called for and one is evolving in rural Bluff, Utah, with all the resulting tensions that come with change and growth.
Torrey House Press publisher, Kirsten Johanna Allen, in search of words from the land. 12/21/2018 in Bluff, Utah
In Torrey, we are blessed with an industrious neighbor, Mary B., who is working on getting the Torrey Town public lights, including street lights, modified to improve lighting and reduce light pollution. Mary is also working to make Torrey the first International Dark-Sky Association community in Utah. She asked us for a letter of support and we penned the following: Continue reading →
Last August I received a call from my 83 year old mother. “Your father wants to speak with you,” she told me. It is like that with Dad and me, not a lot of direct communication. I told Mom I would come over the next day after dinner. When the time came I was surprised to see my wife, Kirsten, grab her purse and head for the door with me. My father has a reputation for being difficult and there are rarely volunteers to join me in seeing him. Dad is in his mid-eighties and as his oldest offspring I am to be the executor of his will. I thought he might want to talk about some details or arrangements, but when we all sat down around the table together, including Kirsten and Mom, he asked me if I wanted his observatory. I thought he was asking if I coveted his belongings, which I surely do not. But in my own advancing years I may have gained adequate wisdom so that when Kirsten kicked me under the table I ceased my objections and turned to see her silently mouth, eyebrows raised, “This is an honor.”
Dad at his Alpenglow Observatory in Salt Lake City, August 2016
Michael Branch completely had me at “Bug.” I too have a vivacious, curious, energetic daughter I raised in the Great Basin and that I nicknamed “Bug.” Although mine was raised not in the wild but in the suburbs of Salt Lake City on the east edge of the Basin with only frequent trips to the Wasatch Mountains and to a remote second home high in the center of the Colorado Plateau. That and she is 32 years old already. Continue reading →
I am able to get close enough to the heavens to take photos of deep sky objects from my driveway on the Colorado Plateau because I am standing on the shoulders of giants. This subtle jewel of a galaxy first picked up it’s nick name in February 1787 when William Herschel wrote in his observing notes, “A very remarkable object, mE. [much elongated], about 12′ long, 4′ or 5′ broad, contains one lucid spot like a star with a small black arch under it, so that it gives one the idea of what is called a black eye, arising from fighting.” Continue reading →