Saving the night

(Originally I was going to add the word “sky” to the title of this post, but I like the possibilities suggested without it.)

In an interesting bit of co-incidence, it’s just been announced that 4300 square kilometres of the MacKenzie Basin has been declared a Dark Sky Reservethe biggest in the world. How marvelous is that?

Growing up in the bush and in small country towns, I always took being able to see the stars for granted. Unless it was cloudy, you just looked up at night and there they were. (I can remember being extremely unimpressed by Halley’s Comet in 1986, but that’s about it.) Going to Cowarral in the holidays I would notice again how much brighter and clearer and nearer they seemed, but the difference wasn’t big enough to really register. When I lived in Sydney during my three years at University, I was too busy looking at the bright lights to worry about the stars.

I don’t think I’d really taken in how much light pollution Christchurch had until the first time Stewart took me to Lake Tekapo. Back in those days (getting on for cough cough twenty years ago cough cough cough) the township was still quite small and sleepy, and I can remember walking back to our accommodation largely by starlight one evening. (Well, I was walking. He was stumbling and asking why I didn’t turn the damn torch on.)  I remember how aware of the night sky I always was there. It was at Tekapo that I first really saw the moon as a sphere – not just a circle in the sky that I knew was a big ball a long way away. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it yourself, but it was a beautiful moment, and quite disorienting. It was a crescent moon, hanging low in the sky, and earthshine meant I could quite clearly see its whole shape.

Being a sprawling city (even more so these days …) on a flat plain, Christchurch generates quite a bit of light pollution. I can remember lots of discussions about where we would need to go to in order to get a good view of (I think) comet Hale-Bopp back in 2007. Being lazy, we headed up to the Sign of the Takahe with what seemed like 90% of the city’s population. And hence really didn’t see much at all. But it’s still a million miles better than people in the UK would generally experience. We lived in the Yorkshire Dales, so theoretically in a rural location. But the light pollution from Leeds/Bradford meant that the only way we could actually see anything of the Perseid meteor shower was to drive even further north, and up onto the North Yorkshire Moors. People often talk about the strangeness of suddenly seeing southern stars for the first time. I couldn’t see enough of the northern stars to really notice the difference, although I did occasionally remember not to bother trying to find the southern cross.

All of which wanders a long way from the point of the post. Living in Southbridge is great for star-gazing – very little light pollution, so I can wander out onto the lawn with a glass of wine, looking up and trying to identify the different constellations. (Or, as is more likely at this time of year, wander from window to window upstairs.) Hello stars. Hello moon. Hello planets.

How wonderful that they’ve created a sanctuary for darkness!

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