Andersen: Lights delete cosmic transcendence
Most people in urban areas rarely look up at night. If they do, their eyes squint against a lurid, artificial haze of man-made light filtered through pollution. Technology has distanced us from the heavens because of the threatening sense of mystery suspended there.
No one has actively engineered the disappearance of celestial wonder looming auspiciously overhead. The act was unintentional but ultimately beneficial to the conquest of individual spiritual inquiry by technological society.
The deletion of cosmic transcendence happened as a matter of course while we were busy growing the gross national product and altering the climate. And now it’s gone for most people, thanks to security lighting and industrial overwhelm.
At a national wilderness conference last month, I attended a presentation by an astronaut who spent a month on the International Space Station. His revelation about the environmental significance of our green and blue orb was profoundly inspired by his view from space.
The same transcendent experience can be had by looking out into space at the vastness of the cosmic night sky. Actually, it’s not looking out; it is looking into space. In a philosophical and reflective way, it is also looking into ourselves, made as we are of celestial carbon.
Man has long pondered existence through contact with the heavens. The ancients assigned names, personalities and stories to the constellations, plotting human characteristics through the easily accessible swirl of stars, planets and galaxies.
The ancients were moved by transcendent mystery because it was so profoundly evident and awe-inspiring. Today, only the moon and a few planets are visible to most, while mystery and wonder are lost to all but rural dwellers, wilderness wanderers and planetarium visitors.
The recent crash of a Virgin Galactic spacecraft speaks to the pull of space for humans who aspire to the mystery. But rather than launching oneself into the troposphere, it is far less expensive and less risky to explore space from Earth with a curious eye and an inquiring mind seeking our past and future in the star-spangled sky.
Instead, we get our information from social media. We get our transcendence from religion. We get our wonder from navel gazing. We get our imagination from virtual realities. We get our philosophy from TV sitcoms.
“Contact! Contact!” urged Henry David Thoreau as he explored the heavens from Walden Pond. When asked if he got lonely there, he replied: “How could I be lonely? Don’t we live in the Milky Way?” Thoreau’s company was star sparkle, his society all of existence.
John Burroughs warned: “Persons who do not read the book of nature as a whole, who do not try their faith by the records of the rocks and the everlasting stars — those who take no account of these things lose their reckoning in times like ours.”
“Times like ours” were prelude to the total conquest of nature by technological man. Thoreau, Burroughs, Ralph Emerson, John Muir and others pushed back by reading from “the book of nature.” They recognized the dire threats of trivial distractions.
Many of us celebrate wilderness and the perspective it affords, and there is no greater wilderness than space. Carl Sagan considered the heavens a respite from earthly gravitational concerns, a place to wander through the imagination.
A star-filled sky is a draw for the curious, the philosophical, the irreligious, the Druids and the pantheists among us who exercise the right to religious freedom by looking upward. The night sky is something to howl at, to peer into. We desire to see the heavens, as John Denver did, “raining fire in the skies.”
Blanketing the heavens with light pollution is a form of blindness prescribed by technological man to avert the fear of macrocosmic perspective. It is a means for keeping one’s eyes down on the work at hand, away from the substance of the universe, averted from the signals of heaven flickering from the infinite reaches of the Milky Way.
Urban living has successfully banished our perception of the universe. What you see is not the moon but the glare of a streetlight. What you see are not stars but an artificial aura pretending to be something glorious while masking our deepest connections.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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