Summer Journal: The Tranquility of the Night Sky

  • Harry the beagle sits on a rock with his owner while the "supermoon" rises over Tuttle Hill in Tunbridge, Vt., on Aug. 10, 2014. (Geoff Hansen photograph)

    Harry the beagle sits on a rock with his owner while the "supermoon" rises over Tuttle Hill in Tunbridge, Vt., on Aug. 10, 2014. (Geoff Hansen photograph)

  • The sun sets over a hayfield on Tuttle Hill in Tunbridge, Vt., on Aug. 10, 2014. (Geoff Hansen photograph)

    The sun sets over a hayfield on Tuttle Hill in Tunbridge, Vt., on Aug. 10, 2014. (Geoff Hansen photograph)

  • Harry the beagle sits on a rock with his owner while the "supermoon" rises over Tuttle Hill in Tunbridge, Vt., on Aug. 10, 2014. (Geoff Hansen photograph)
  • The sun sets over a hayfield on Tuttle Hill in Tunbridge, Vt., on Aug. 10, 2014. (Geoff Hansen photograph)

I grew up in cities where the night sky is blotted out by the sheer wattage radiating from the urban grid. The web of city lights, with its dusky violet hues, has its own vitality but it’s not true night. It’s rare to see stars through the gauzy scrim of light, and even the brightest ones appear as pallid pinpricks.

Light offers protection against the uncertainties of darkness, but we’ve also become removed from a sense of the universe and our place in it. We go from the blaze of the sun into the blaze of artificial light without really experiencing darkness. I once interviewed a woman who grew up in a more remote valley in Vermont before electrification and she remembered what it was like to go to bed seeing absolute night because there were no other houses in their immediate vicinity. Only a small percentage of Americans know what that is like anymore.

A few weeks ago, with meteorologists trumpeting a “supermoon,” my husband and I walked up a trail to a hilltop that looks west to the Green Mountains. There are no houses nearby and it’s a fine spot from which to see the sun set and the moon rise.

The moon had already broken over the horizon, which meant I’d missed the moment when it is said to look its largest. Indeed, it didn’t look much bigger than usual. But the light it cast was as lustrous as diamonds. I settled in the field grass with my back against a boulder and my face to the sky.

The night was warm. Crickets and katydids were singing by the thousands. One cricket seemed to be at my ear level, and its insistent chirping was rough and gravelly, as if I were listening to two lumberjacks saw through a giant log. Feathery stalks of timothy and fescue, sillhouetted against the moon, wavered in a slight breeze. The few clouds in the sky seemed stationary; the moon was behind them but as it rose higher in the sky its light began to gild their scalloped edges.

Through a pair of borrowed binoculars the moon looked enormous. In close-up the man-in-the-moon face disappeared, supplanted by what looked like one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings of himself as an old man. The nose, the beard, the deep-set eyes and furry eyebrows were all there, and it seemed perfectly logical, given his catholic mind, that his face should be the one that I saw.

I realized how rarely I experience the sensations of being out at night just for the sake of it. Night is something to be traveled through as quickly as possible, going from car to house, or car to restaurant or theater, letting the dog out and in again. Our lives are constructed to ward off night: television, computer, iPods and radio distract us, and I am one of the most easily distracted.

But to sit in darkness for a prolonged time was unexpectedly meditative. I thought I’d jump at every little sound, but there was nothing to hear except the symphony of insects and the occasional drone of a jet; nothing to see but the meadow grass and trees bathed in moonlight. Looking at the western horizon I could see the shadowy outline of the Green Mountains, and in the valley below dots of light from people’s houses.

Moonlight is sometimes described as cold but, to me, its light acts as a balm and radiates tranquility. The light isn’t so much pure silver but an alchemy of silver, gold and indigo. I thought of the lines in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when Juliet implores death “to cut (Romeo) out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”

The moon was so brilliant it was difficult to see stars, except through the binoculars, but a few nights later, under a clear dome of sky, I was rewarded. The sky was incandescent with stars and planets and the Milky Way was a river of fog.

I don’t know enough about the constellations to identify them all but I could easily pick out the Big Dipper, the three lateral stars of Orion’s belt and, low on the horizon, what I thought was Venus, the most luminous of the planets in the night sky. Looking at them it wasn’t so difficult to believe in the ancient gods. Even just five minutes under the night sky is a bracing reminder of our transience.

Was there another Earth, or Ea rth-like planet, out there? Given the scale of the galaxy it doesn’t seem implausible. We live in a culture where so much attention is paid to moment-by-moment breathless revelations and opinions that we forget how insignificant we really are, how vast the universe is, and how much is still unknown to us.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@ vnews.com.