A Cape Cod Notebook 5/15/07

listenUnder the Night Sky

By Robert Finch

One of the great pleasures of late spring and early summer is to sleep outside under the stars. Before the summer haze has veiled the sky and summer insects send us scurrying indoors again, it's a seasonal delight simply to lie, in relative comfort, open to the unenclosed night. One never knows what one will see. On early May nights we can sometimes observe the Aquarid meteor shower, a modest display compared to the brilliant Perseids of August or the Leonids of November, but still enough so that every hour several streaks of pale-orange light go stabbing across the eastern sky like sudden hot needles. The sky, of course, is no longer pristine, even in our relatively rural area. Occasional jets, blinking red and green, sail smoothly overhead, coming or going from Europe, carrying sleeping bodies, couched in padded and pressurized hulls. Miles below, my eyes track them. On moonlit nights their vapor trails stretch out in silver plumes, a sight that in visual splendor rivals that of the old clipper ships. Frequently a bright white star near the horizon will begin to rise, slowly, but noticeably, up towards the zenith, like a tiny bubble in a bottle of concentrated shampoo. Seeing these communication satellites reminds me that the Space Age, though seemingly put on hold, has irrevocably begun. One May night, for the first and only time in my life, I thought I had actually spotted a UFO. In the eastern sky I noticed a pulsing arc of colored lights, like those on the rim of the alien spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It seemed to hover for several minutes, and then slowly began to approach. I grabbed my binoculars, and when the object finally came close enough, I saw that the lights were flashing, not some extraterrestrial message, but "HAPPY BIRTHDAY SUMNER!" Terrestrial lights impinge on the night sky a well: the pink-orange glow of sodium vapor street lamps, the more distant glows of shopping centers and ball fields, or the occasional pair of headlights, like parallel comets in reverse, hurling their spreading tails of light ahead of them over the black pavement. But despite these and other artificial lights, our night sky here remains blessedly uncluttered. On clear moonless nights, when my eyes have become fully adjusted to the dark, I become aware of the soft, curved, tilted band of the Milky Way. How rarely we see this phenomenon, or even look for it anymore. Yet this vast and subtle spectacle was a nightly visual experience and a deep mythic presence to our earliest civilizations. Whatever the Milky Way meant to the ancients, however, modern astronomy steps in and hands me its glasses. I look through them, edgewise, into the thickening center of our galaxy, a whirling disk of star clusters, cloud nebulas, and cosmic dust 100,000 light years across, and I feel myself swung to sleep in the crook of its immense spiral arms. -- Steve Young/Broadcast Director WCAI-FM Cape and Islands NPR Station Winner 2007 duPont-Columbia Award www.capeandislands.org