I live on the Snake River where there’s little light pollution at night to dim the stars of a December sky. Night skies are so black here, our area is under consideration for designation as an IDSP (International Dark Sky Place). Sometimes, after supper when the sun’s set, I like to take a walk down the gravel road near my home. I slip a miner’s light around the top of my head to help me see in the dark. Usually at least once on my walk, I’ll reach up and click the headlight off to stare at the spray of stars in the sky overhead. As the song says, all is calm, all is bright.
One night many years ago I was watching the sky and saw a remarkable thing. All the stars were twinkling except one. It looked like a small white smudge on a dark canvas. I went back inside the house to get a jacket and my binoculars. Through the binoculars I could easily see the tail of this “star.” The year was 1986, and I was viewing something people see only once every 75 or so years: Halley’s Comet.
We miss so much in the night sky asleep in our beds.
Ten or so years after viewing Halley’s Comet, I was jogging in the early morning dark, and suddenly the sky lit up like it was broad daylight. It was so bright I could see our neighbor’s house a quarter of a mile away. I stopped jogging a moment and just stood there in the middle of the road, awestruck. The natural world took notice of the sudden light too. The perennial rustling of ducks, birds, and other wild life along the river hushed, and the only sound I heard was the gentle lapping of water.
At first I thought this strange phenomenon was an aurora borealis, but the Snake River flood plain is not really in the auroral zone. Later I realized it was most likely another meteor streaking through space and blazing out above me in earth’s outer atmosphere.
If I was from an ancient civilization, a nomadic culture for example, living somewhere in the Middle East, I might have thought this flaming star—a sign.
Others have noticed the spectacular night sky here on the Snake River. In the next valley over, the Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park has a public observatory and hosts star shows March through October. I’ve seen the rings of Saturn and fantastical nebulae formations through their big “Obsession” telescope. But much can be seen with just the naked eye. Every morning now, around 5 o’clock, Mars rises in the east. It’s a distinctive-looking planet with its ochre color. Could we ever live on Mars, I wonder?
I think about this sometimes, star gazing Idaho skies, whether mankind could exist on other planets. I’ve never wanted to leave earth, but I worry about the devastating effects of climate change. There is no “Planet B” though. Scientific and international reports on the environment have made this very clear. We need to take better care of the planet we live on: this beautiful blue globe, this special Christmas ornament hanging in space we call earth.