The big dipper hung low over the highway in front of me as I drove north on Interstate 95. It was one of those crisp, clear evenings when the sky turns deep blue after sunset. I couldn’t wait to get to Caribou to examine the night sky from my front yard.
I was not disappointed. The sky was a blanket of stars, bisected by the Milky Way — a broad swath, millions of stars, in an arc over my head.
Every time I experience such an evening, I am struck with wonder at the vastness of the universe and the minuteness of my place in it. I try to imagine something totally beyond my comprehension. I think about my life in a way quite different from my general focus on the day-to-day activities that seem so important at the time.
Observing the firmament provides a periodic perspective on existence that I find valuable. Yet, in recent years, I have come to realize that I am among a dwindling number of people on the East Coast with such a pure view of the heavens. Students from urban New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island at the Job Corps Center in Limestone, 12 miles north of Caribou, saw a truly dark night sky for the first time after they arrived in Aroostook County.
“I was in awe,” said Menelike Craig of Brooklyn, N.Y., recalling his first views of a shooting star, the Aurora Borealis and a yellow moon.
“I was able to make out the big dipper, something I never saw in my life,” he said, explaining that bright light from the city makes it difficult to see the stars.
Craig’s discovery of the night sky in Aroostook inspired him to organize a Stargazers Club for any of his fellow students interested in learning more about the stars and space.
Who would guess that one of the many gifts of living in northern Maine is darkness? Yet “natural darkness is becoming rare,” says the National Park Service. “All living things benefit from natural darkness,” according to a flyer on the NPS Night Sky Program. “The night sky is everyone’s heritage, but light pollution is rapidly eroding the unspoiled view of the stars.”
Listing “7 Simple Ways to Enjoy Natural Darkness”” and “5 Simple Ways You Can Protect the Night,” the flyer led me to www.nature.nps.gov/air/lightscapes, where I learned that “light pollution is not the inevitable side-effect of progress but is instead indicative of wasteful and inefficient outdoor lighting.”
I learned that shielded and full-cut-off light fixtures, like those with motion sensors, can reduce unnecessary light, as well as save energy.
“Protecting dark skies doesn’t mean throwing civilization back into the dark ages,” I read. “It simply requires that outdoor lights be used judiciously.”
Satellite images on the website showing increases in global light pollution over the years reminded me of another satellite image I had seen of the East Coast clearly showing northern Maine as an island of darkness. Add darkness to the list of vanishing natural resources still abundant in Aroostook.
“Darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself,” said writer Verlyn Klinkenborg in a July 2013 National Geographic article. Calling our circadian rhythms of waking and sleep fundamental to our being, Klinkenborg details how altered light levels affect other species as well — from songbirds to sea turtles — disrupting migration, reproduction and feeding.
“In a very real sense,” Klinkenborg wrote, “light pollution causes us to lose sight of our true place in the universe, to forget the scale of our being, which is best measured against the dimensions of a deep night with the Milky Way — the edge of the galaxy — arching overhead.”
Before I moved to Maine, I thought northern lights only happened in the summer. My childhood home in Michigan was in a wooded area, and I suppose we were usually on summer vacations when we observed what my parents reverently defined as “the Aurora Borealis.”
The first year I lived in Aroostook County, my husband and I skied from the road to our house in the winter, crossing an open field, about a tenth of a mile. One night on one of those treks, we noticed a bright band of light directly overhead, not the stars of the Milky Way but a solid arc.
Fortunately, a call to the outhouse brought me back into the yard an hour or so later. The band of light had moved to the north and widened. As time passed, the glow became the dancing luminescence of color that we would witness time after time thereafter — Aurora Borealis.
I have lived in Aroostook County long enough now that I can hardly imagine the loss I would feel were I unable to wander out into the darkness and be so small.
“I will miss it when I go home,” said Craig. “You want to be part of it. You don’t know what you are missing until it’s gone.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.