Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 2004 / 13 Tishrei, 57645

Bronwyn Lance Chester

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Star light, star bright ... overlighting dims a stellar sight | Sitting around the fire pit outside my father's house, talking and poking at hot coals as the glorious indigo twilight ripened into black, I looked up and stopped in mid-sentence.

The dark dome of the late-summer sky was alive with stars.

What at first appeared to be a scattering of celestial bodies - sharp pinpoints of light in the gathering dusk - was transformed after a few minutes into a heavenly carpet of hundreds, then thousands, then millions of stars.

I was momentarily startled to see them and mentally greeted them the same way I'd welcome a dear confidant gone a touch too long.

For years, I've searched in vain for them over my house in Virginia Beach. But even on the clearest of nights, only the cheekiest and boldest of the bunch can penetrate the streetlights, floodlights and security lights that are signs of our afraid-of-the-dark 21st century times.

But on this night, my old friends winked and blinked and nodded in the raven-dark sky, nudging each other, vying for my attention, happy that the game of hide-and-go-seek had ended, if only temporarily.

Their wheeling overhead was accompanied by a rhythmic rattling, screeching and clicking of insects from their leafy roosts. Had I not known better, I'd have sworn that theirs was the music of the spheres.

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I was fortunate enough to have this stellar reunion deep in the mountains of Western North Carolina, where I grew up. But even there, I've noticed a difference in the night sky over the years as more outsiders move in and more lights go on.

There are fewer places now where you can clearly see the stars. As families and retirees flee cities' and suburbs' high taxes and crowded schools for the peace and quiet of the exurbs, havens for star-watching are becoming tainted with light pollution.

Much of that is unnecessary. We overlight our houses and businesses.

A sound sleep was impossible at my old house because our neighbor's security light turned our bedroom's night into noon. Exactly why he was so afraid of the dark that he thought it necessary to roll the entire neighborhood into his phobia remains a mystery.

As for those glare-bomb gas station canopies, one scientist commented that they "generate enough light to also serve as tanning booths."

I'm certainly not against modernity. I like hot baths and a well-lit kitchen as much as anybody.

And I'm not advocating that we transform into North Korea, a land for the truly light-averse. The cash-strapped totalitarian nation's void of nighttime lights is actually visible from outer space.

But it is regrettable that future generations will be able to only dimly see what used to be a fundamental, taken-for-granted part of any clear evening.

Lying on a blanket in a summer field and staring into the heavens is the closest most of us non-scientists will come to realizing the smallness and fragility of Earth.

As eyes adjust to darkness and milky layers of stars and galaxies come into view, it's easier to contemplate our odd position, wedged by gravity to the side of a planet, roaring through the firmament around our sun at 67,000 miles per hour.

We are trivial indeed.

I don't lament our modern conveniences, our lights and televisions, our illuminated billboards, cars and highways that boast to future terrestrial inhabitants of our generation's cleverness and ingenuity.

But it's a bit sad that they make us less able to see our humble place in the universe.

Bronwyn Lance Chester is a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2004, The Virginian-Pilot Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services