It is late fall here at White Pine Farm, yet the continued warmth and rain have kept the coldest season at bay for just a few more weeks. The pastures are still a vibrant green, quite unlike the golden sheen of senescence typical of autumn’s end. Yet the cycle of the seasons continues with the leaves falling and the sky opening up to reveal our winter vistas. Indeed, if ever unseasonable warmth (or cold) confuses my internal calendar I only need to look up at the night sky to reset my seasonal clock. Looking to the east in late fall I see the Pleiades, the seven sisters of Greek lore, rising above the tree line. I know that in a few more weeks Orion the Hunter will dominate the winter sky. This week (week of October 20th) the arrival of this celestial warrior was preceded by the Hunter’s Moon.
The Hunter’s Moon is the first full moon following the autumn equinox. Preceding this in September was the aptly named Harvest Moon, which has illuminated long, late days of the bountiful season for as long as humans have had a harvest. Similarly, the Hunter’s Moon likely illuminated nighttime forays in quest of wild game. Of course, such nocturnal activities are illegal now in many places in the world. However, our ancestors likely had no qualms about using this bright, autumn moon in search of meat to sustain family and tribe.
The cycles of the moon, and the wheel of the night sky, tie us to our ancestors in a beautiful and tangible way. For millennia humans have looked to the stars to guide the timing of planting, to navigate their way across miles of land and sea, and to spark a profound sense of wonder at the unknown. Of course, viewing the night sky in the humid Northeast is not always ideal. One cannot see stars through a layer of clouds, and even clear nights in summer are often quite humid with the airborne moisture obscuring the heavens. In the heart of winter, when humidity is down, we still often have snow covered fields and forests that reflect and refract any ambient light, again obscuring the sharp details of the night sky. However, occasionally, when a dry breeze blows from the interior northwest, when the cycle of the moon has moved its light away from us, and when the fields and forests are free of snow, we are treated to a magnificent celestial show. When I step out into our dark pastures on such a night I am greeted by many thousands of stars, and a small sampling of bright, wandering planets. The arc of the milky way, while often somewhat dim, spans the sky, and I marvel at the millions of worlds that make up this stellar cloud.
Of course, these celestial wonders are not unique to White Pine Farm. The Finger Lakes region is still quite rural, so star gazing awaits all who step out into darkened fields. However, this opportunity is becoming increasingly rare. Since the advent of electric lights, a technology that has brought tremendous benefits to humanity, the night sky in urban areas has been largely lost behind an electric haze. This effect can be seen hundreds of miles from these urban areas, often manifested as a pronounced glow, or glows, on the horizon. Astronomers and other scholars have been studying this trend, and its concerning implications, for quite some time now. Recently a group of scientists released “The new world atlas of artificial night sky brightness”. This publication states “that more than 80% of the world and more than 99% of the U.S. and European populations live under light-polluted skies. The Milky Way is hidden from more than one-third of humanity, including 60% of Europeans and nearly 80% of North Americans. Moreover, 23% of the world’s land surfaces between 75°N and 60°S, 88% of Europe, and almost half of the United States experience light-polluted nights.” (https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.1600377).
There are many concerns associated with this loss of the night including affects on human health and impacts on wildlife. Fortunately, there are some very smart folks studying this issue, and developing approaches to mitigate the loss of our stars to modern convenience. One of the bright stars in this constellation of scholars is Professor Sara Pritchard of Cornell University who has spent the last several years traveling the globe researching this issue, and its history, in preparation for her upcoming book. Of course, my deeply biased opinion of this scholar is due in part to her role on the farm as Chief Shepherdess, and as my wife Sara. Visitors to the Brooktondale farmer’s market may know her as the lovely woman who sells yarn from our sheep, garden produce, and potted herbs at the White Pine Farm table. Ask her about light pollution. You will find a well of wisdom.
So, there is great reason for hope that the loss of the night can be reversed with smart folks like this on our side. Though we all may need to make some lifestyle, regulatory, and technology changes return some semblance to the dark skies of old. For now, however, I encourage all to revel in the beauty of our mostly-dark night skies, and to recognize how unique this has become in our modern world. As always you can contact us at email@example.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just two miles up from the village of Brooktondale.