We had the sky there,
all speckled with stars,
and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them
and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.
As I child I remember the first time I saw the Milky Way, both spectacular and terrifying. Driving on the lonely stretch of Highway 138 on the way back from Las Vegas, only my Dad and I were awake. I sat in the back staring out the window of our 1989 Toyota Tercel and had not noticed the night sky until the buildings and other cars no longer offered distractions. A sparse landscape unintelligible left my eyes to wander upwards. Like an accordion spread out over the Mojave desert stretched endlessly from the horizon was a vastness of blinking stars, and our little white car chugged along into this dark empyrean.
The yellow lights of solitary homes, the flashing red lights of planes flying high over head toward LAX caught my occasional attention. It was natural to doze off and as my head tilted ever so slightly with sleep, I finally noticed the white expanse of the milky way and my place in the world became instantaneously evident. I was smaller then the specks that littered that great path, and that thought scared me.
I haven’t seen the Milky Way since. Light pollution has destroyed star gazing in, and around, Los Angeles. Light chokes out the sparkle that comes through in across the galaxy and we are left with this hazy yellowish glow. The night sky has become unfamiliar to us city dwellers. The light pollution has in large part cut us off from the cosmos.
In fact, only a couple of years after that Las Vegas trip, Angelenos had the pleasure of rediscovering this wonder. In 1994 at 4 AM Los Angeles shook. While the ground was shaking, the lights were going out across the region. What happened next emphasizes just how disconnected people in mega cities like Los Angeles are from the celestial sky. While running outdoors for safety, people were confronted with the night sky absent artificial lights, and over the next few weeks as power remained down, hundreds (if not thousands?) of calls poured into the emergency services, observatories, and radio shows asking what “what was going on with the sky?”
“Had [the sky] shattered along with the earth during that Earthquake,” I could hear people frantically asking in my head when I read about it. At the time Ed Krupp was the director of the Griffith Observatory and he was perplexed by the phone calls he was getting asking about the “strange glowing silver cloud” that appeared after the Earthquake.
“We finally realized what we were dealing with,” Krupp told the LA Times in a 2011 article. “The quake had knocked out most of the power, and people ran outside and they saw the stars. The stars were in fact so unfamiliar; they called us wondering what happened.”Krupp also shared that in1986, many Angelenos couldn’t see Halley’s Comet, one of the brightest celestial occurrences, with the naked eye due to the light pollution in the area.
It was the Milky Way. Now, to experience this wonder, we have to go looking for it, to places like Death Valley National Park. It was recently recognized internationally as a Dark Sky region. But the majority of kids don’t have the resources or ability to go to places like Death Valley and so they might live their entire childhood unaware of this wonder.
As a Muslim, I fear that this aspect in particular has cut us off from the most inspiring understanding of the Quranic verses and practice.
Thanks to our modern cities that hog electricity to brighten up the nights, many children born today will never see a truly dark sky. In fact, two thirds of the people living in the United States can no longer see the Milky Way with the naked eye, and an estimated 90% of the worlds population can not see it.
We fear the dark still, and we drown ourselves in light. Light is our communal drug and it is ridiculously cheap.
Henry David Thoreau concluded “[we] are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced.” Goethe on his deathbed had supposedly demanded more light. Today we have met both Goethe and Thoreau’s demands beyond their wildest dreams.
Around the time of the American Revolution the price of lighting one 75 watt light bulb for one hour required five hours of work, whereas by 1992 it took an American worker less then a second (Nautilus, Summer 2014). So we turn on the lights across our vast city scapes to chase away the fears of darkness today.
Kids now a days will never see the Milky Way from their homes. Nor will they see the bright planets like Jupiter and Venus on moonless nights.
When Muslim kids look up to the night sky they will barely be able to see more then twelve stars, and definitely not the newborn moon of Ramadan. The sky that shone to the Prophet 1400 years ago is now as mythical as the Night Journey (Isra Miraj). We are cut off from he celestial firmament, yet we bicker over technicalities of calculating the Islamic religious dates or sighting the moon. What moon, when we can count the brightest stars on one finger.
Yet, it was in that moment of darkness that I felt closest to vulnerability and inconsequence that placed me in a place of wonder at God’s creation. Moments like that have repeated themselves in my life. Each time, they have checked my ego and placed me firmly back in a place of dependence. Now, I chase after these experiences to hold onto that feeling and not lose my sense of place in the greater scheme of things. Maybe embracing our existential fears, living with them, is not such a bad thing.
- Hanson, Dirk, “Drowning in Light: Technology has fed our addiction to light, and might help us end it“, Nautilus, Summer 2014