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Field & Street

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The first 18 years of my life were spent in dark flatlands where the nighttime skies were flabbergasting. In southeast Texas rice fields stretched across the plains, interrupted only by small towns and oil refineries. Mall sprawl conquered much of the land after I left, but in the 1960s the skies darkened thoroughly and revealed a panorama of stars after each sunset. Later my family moved to rural Indiana, so far removed from urban America that Evansville, 30 miles distant, was the only place large enough to make even a mild glow on the horizon. Seeing thousands of stars a night was routine. The Milky Way, that magnificent cross-sectional view of our galaxy, was an ordinary part of nighttime. Except for the severe humidity, which tends to warp images through a telescope, these places were an amateur astronomer's dream.

My father is a scientist, and though his professional pursuit as a petroleum geologist is to find out what's under the ground, he also takes an interest in what's on and above it. On summer nights when we grew tired of TV our family would soak itself in Off! and sit outside on lawn chairs to try to learn the stars together.

We had a telescope. I can't remember any of its features, except that the tube was blue and I could never see anything through it. Recently my dad confessed that he couldn't either, and it turns out we're not alone: cheap telescopes probably turn more people away from astronomy than anything else. They're tedious to focus, and as soon as you get them on the mark the slightest breeze knocks them off. So we mostly depended on our bare eyes to navigate the universe.

It's hard for me to get my bearings in a new place unless I'm the one holding the map. This was true for the night skies as well; unless I looked at the chart and found constellations on my own I never knew what I was doing or what I was supposed to be looking at. I was a youngest child, accustomed to backseats and an absence of responsibility. So even with all the hours I spent under those spectacular skies, conscientiously nodding and saying yes, I saw Vega, the Pleiades, and Andromeda, the truth is most of the time I couldn't, didn't, or wouldn't. I would not have recognized the Little Dipper if it had dribbled on my head.

I didn't know that when I escaped Posey County I would be forever giving up darkness. It was a sacrifice that never entered my mind. I was so inexperienced in the ways of the urban world that when I moved to Evanston to go to college I packed a flashlight, and the first few evenings of freshman orientation I stuck it in my pocket. I didn't know it would never get dark enough to need it.

The urban lighting systems that enable us to walk around without flashlights make living in the city like living under a translucent bubble. From our position the sky looks like it's covered in an orangish film through which we can see only the brightest of stars. This is because the light from street lamps, homes, ballparks, and car dealerships shooting up into the sky encounters water vapor, dust, and motes of pollution. Each tiny piece of debris reflects a minuscule amount of light, but the combined effect is enormous. Essentially Chicago shines a light into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere acts like a glass window that bounces it right back at us.

Until the use of electric lights began to become widespread in the early part of this century, the spectacle of stars was regularly witnessed by every sighted person who ever lived on earth. Gas streetlights appeared in England in the early 1800s, but they were much dimmer. And until quite recently streetlights in many cities were turned off at midnight or earlier.

Now I've lived almost as long under Chicago's cantaloupe-colored sky as I have under rich black heavens. And even though I love the city in a thousand ways, I loathe the way it never grows dark. I believe that never seeing the Milky Way is damaging my integrity in some way I can't name. It makes me pettier, meaner--less of a human being than I was before.

The connection isn't clear to me, but I think the diminishment I feel in myself is related to the potential the night sky has to provide a person a grasp of infinity like nothing else visible to us on earth. For everyone living in urban America--and that's 79 percent of the population--our one chance to glimpse infinity has been obliterated. Even on a crystal-clear night in Chicago it's possible to easily count the visible stars, which number around 200--a number I can count to out loud in 70 seconds.

I see stars in the night sky perhaps 14 nights out of the year, on clear nights when I'm visiting my family or on vacation in an isolated place. But it's not the same as seeing them on a regular basis. The damn galaxies just aren't there when I need them. They aren't around when I'm feeling sorry for myself and need a reminder that my life is an insignificant speck in the universe. They're not there when I get my new issue of Sky & Telescope magazine and learn of some amazing celestial event in the universe that I'm going to miss. The stars are a feature in my life only in the way that mountains and oceans are: I have to travel to see them.

Of course I'm among the lucky in seeing them at all. I can only speculate on what it would be like never to have experienced the immensity of a clear night sky, the case for Chicagoans who never take trips to rural areas.

During air-raid blackouts in World War II, many Londoners saw the Milky Way for the first time in their lives. As a result, interest in astronomy increased dramatically.

This is what I find the strangest fact about light pollution: It's the only serious environmental problem that's instantly reversible, yet it's impossible to think it'll ever be reversed. All it would take would be a total blackout--every light turned off in the whole six-county Chicago metropolitan region at the same time--and suddenly the stars in all their sparkling glory would reappear.

I have this crazy notion about organizing a onetime quarter-hour blackout so that the kids in my neighborhood and people all over the city can see the stars. Maybe Commonwealth Edison and the Illinois Department of Transportation in their infinite benevolence would like to sponsor it. For a mere 15 minutes the utility could stop pumping energy out of its nuclear reactors and into our homes and streets, and IDOT could force all cars and trucks to stop and douse their headlights.

The blackout--we'd have to call it Star Mania or something with a positive PR spin--would be announced and publicized well ahead of time. I can picture it so clearly: On the appointed night people would climb out on fire escapes, open hatch doors to the roofs of apartment buildings, walk out into backyards. Teenagers would drive to open areas and linger on the hoods of cars, families would go to the lakefront parks as though it were the Fourth of July. Everyone would stake out a space with a clear view and await the moment. Then at 10:30 PM, when it was completely dark but not so late that children couldn't stay up, poof! Commonwealth Edison would pull the plug, and the glowing bubble that surrounds the city would dissolve.

The dark would descend instantaneously. For a few minutes we'd let our pupils dilate, growing accustomed to the inky absence of light. And as our eyes adjusted, the stars would crackle into view. The 200 we could see before would be joined by 1,000, then 1,000 more--a sky swarming with constellations, clusters, nebulae, galaxies as far as the eye could see. And there we'd all be: eight million people sitting in this metropolis on the black prairie with our heads tilted upward, beholding a sky that goes on forever.

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