Starry, Starry Night

"Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh

“Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh

I spent Monday and Tuesday visiting a friend and his wife at their mountain home above Taos, N.M. They live almost 9,000 feet above sea level, and one unexpected highlight was stepping outside about 10 p.m. The sky was clear. As our eyes began adjusting to the darkness, the stars came into view.

About a minute later, they really came into view. The moon was just a sliver, and no city lights competed. The only other light came from the stars — thousands upon thousands filling the sky, horizon to horizon, as bright as I’ve ever seen them.

I thought about the people who first worked with the Hubble Space Telescope, and how those first clear pictures must have made their knees buckle in awe. Even from a dark mountainside, a glimpse of the universe took my breath away.

It took some searching to locate familiar constellations like the Big Dipper — not because their stars were hard to see, but because so many more-distant stars shone behind them. The farthest-away star in the Big Dipper is about 105 light years from Earth. The hundreds of stars suddenly visible directly behind it — who knows? That means we were looking back in time hundreds, maybe thousands of years as the light from those stars finally reached our eyes.

I thought about what it would have been like to live before electric lights, and to watch a show like this every moonless night from anywhere in the world. You begin to understand how mythology developed around the stars and constellations … how the stars inspired painters and poets.

You understand why the Psalmist wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God.”

The moment reminded me something as a writer, too. As we report stories from someplace we can’t settle for one cursory look around. Wait. Pray. Eliminate distractions. Let your eyes adjust.

What you begin to notice will astonish you.

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