By Suzanne Waring
The first time I zeroed in on the stars was on a summer night when I was around ten years old. I stayed that night with a girlfriend. The Midwest weather was hot and sticky as it normally is in southeast Kansas during July. My friend’s farm had yet to hook up to electricity that the REA had installed along the road a few years earlier. When the family turned out the kerosene lamps, it was dark. No yard lights could be seen in any direction.
We rigged up a bed outdoors to avoid the sweltering house that would remain hot all night. We found an old wire boxspring leaning against the chicken house, pulled it onto the driveway and piled it with comforters so the springs wouldn’t be tortuous to sleep on. The sun still cast a dusty light in the west until around 9 p.m. when we decided that it was bedtime. Then it got dark, really dark.
As my eyes adjusted to the night, I took interest in seeing the Milky Way, maybe for the first time. The night sky was spotted with white glowing dots, amidst a powdery, dusty, wide, illuminating streak across the sky. It was obvious why it was named the Milky Way.
My friend suggested we look for falling stars. When we saw a star that seemed to be falling, it was truly a natural phenomenon, not a satellite that would travel the skies in future years. Even with amateur skills, we were able to pick out both the Big Dipper and the North Star.
That night I was just an ordinary little girl doing what kids did in the summertime in the 1950s. I didn’t know I was experiencing something that many of today’s children will never see. Today’s problem is light pollution cast into the sky.
A June 2023 article in the Scientific American indicates that we continue to lose around 10% of true, dark night sky every year. Overall, more than 99% of Americans live under light-polluted skies, and some people in this country may never experience the cosmic display of enchantment right over their heads. There’s no admission fee to see the true night sky; it’s right there, but now we have to go somewhere dark to see it.
We in Montana are in a unique position. We have what few other Americans have. We can still get away from artificial light. I distinctly remember it happening when I least expected it.
Sometime during the summer of 2000, we had business in Bozeman and it was late when we started on our way home. We drove north on Highway 86 to the Battle Ridge Campground
to stay for the night. We had gotten such a late start that all thirteen rustic sites were filled, but we were not daunted as we had hiked the area when we had stayed at the campground previously. We knew that an abandoned circle of campsites was farther up the road and off to the side. With our pickup camper, we pulled into one of those sites.
Without even a neighboring campfire, it was really dark when I got out of the pickup to walk back to the camper door and I thought about lurking bears. A real coward, I stopped to look around only when I had the camper door open and was standing on the pickup’s tailgate. What awaited me was amazing. The stars didn’t appear in the distance as they did when I was ten years old. Thousands, maybe millions, seemed slung low in the sky.
I don’t remember seeing the Milky Way that night, but I do remember how distinct the clear, black night sky was with the stars that seemed so near that I felt I could reach out and touch them. As far as I could see, stars cast their glow toward Earth. Awestruck, I continued to gaze and called my husband’s attention to it. It was a scene that took its place as one of my life’s most enchanted moments.
We should take advantage of what is ours in Montana, and that is seeing the night sky in a place where we can get away from human-created light pollution over our cities, towns, highways, and ranches. It’s not too late in the season for you to get out where it is truly dark and enjoy the night sky. Don’t wait. A clear night sky lit with stars is so awesome that the experience will be added to your special moments of mesmerized memories.