Three Nightscapes

As the sun slips past the horizon and night begins its march across the land, many of us head indoors. We turn on the lights without a second thought, and continue our day inside. Should we glance toward a window, we see a square, if you have square windows, of inky blackness. We look away and enjoy the pleasures that light brings us. But what was it like long ago before the advent of electricity? What did our distant ancestors do after dark?

To begin to understand this we have to find truly dark skies. Today, that is not an easy task. You need to be far away from the nearest significant light source, and you might be surprised at just how much light even the tiniest of towns emits. There are places which are still truly dark, though, which is a good thing. Out west, it is a little easier to find dark skies.

From the moment you turn off all light, be that the sun or whatever light you brought with you, your eyes will begin to adjust. This is a gradual, slow adjustment, but a richly rewarding one. The stars slowly come to life, one by one, two by two, dozens by dozens and before you know it you are staring into the depths of space and a sky filled with countless stars. The more you look, the more you find, and the more you find, the more you look. In some locations and at some times of the year, you can see the core of the Milky Way, and that is a completely staggering sight. It can literally leave you speechless.

One startling thing about the night sky is that it isn’t quite as dark as you might first think. If there is even a sliver of the moon you will be able to find your way around. If it is a full moon it might as well be broad daylight and you will know it is night, but it won’t slow you down. Conversely, if you find truly dark skies on a moonless night, well, it is dark. Such nights are perfect making photographs of the night sky.

These three nightscapes are some of my favorites, and represent how different the Milky Way can look.

Yavapai's NightYavapai’s Night was made in the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Although the Grand Canyon isn’t quite as dark as it could be, it is still a good location for photographing the Milky Way. This photograph was made just after true dark, which is two hours past sunset. The Milky Way was just rising over the canyon rim, and the sight was certainly inspiring The Milky Way has a different personality every day, and it can take on different hues and colors depending on the time of the year, where you are, and importantly, the current atmospheric conditions. There is no predicting it, but Mother Nature will always provide a show. This night beautiful purple tones came out, making an excellent contrast to the canyon. The red glow on the far horizon is Tuba City. It doesn’t take much light to go a long way.

The sun began its decent toward the horizon, hurrying as it went, and thus the transition from day to night began. It was quiet in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area in New Mexico, but this was usually the case for this particular wilderness is little known, little visited, and perfect for finding peace, tranquility and solitude. Best known for its hoodoos, it features much the same topology of its more famous cousin, the Bisti Badlands. Alone in the trackless maze of hoodoos it is easy to become disorientated; as the sun leaves the sky it is downright simple to lose your way. The setting sun, though, brings up another amazing sight—The Milky Way. Far from the lights of civilization, Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah boasts some truly dark skies. On a moonless night you cannot see anything, not even your hand in front of your face. It is that dark. The Milky Way shines clear and bright in those dark skies, and it simply takes your breath away. Also, in this photograph there is a vertical streak just above the horizon to the right of center. This streak is a falling star—a meteor—that happened when I made this photograph. Don’t forget to make your wish!

Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah’s Night was made in the badlands of New Mexico in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area. This area is little known and well off the beaten path. Few people venture out here, but that is their loss for it has some amazing rock formations, and some of its hoodoos are beyond the imagination. On this moonless night it was dark as dark can be. Even with my eyes fully adjusted I never could see my hand in front of my face. However, that was to my advantage because I was able to create the entire scene. I lit up the hoodoos that I liked, and positioned the Milky Way where I wanted it, making this beautiful photograph. As a completely unplanned bonus a meteor streaking through the frame (you can see it as a small vertical line jus above the hoodoos in the back). The wish I made certainly came true!

As the daylight seeps out of the day and the early evening shadows begin their march to darkness, the world quiets down and tranquility settles in. Perhaps a few crickets chirp to announce the arrival of night, and perhaps a lone coyote howl echoes in the far distance, but other than that, all is quiet. The ruins of the Abo Mission also quiet down, and prepare to hold fast through the night once more. In the centuries before electricity and reliable light at night, twilight meant the day was almost done, and night’s darkness was broken only by a cooking or watch fire and there. The Abo residents would be stirring before sunrise, and their lives were governed by the rhythm of the daylight hours. Standing there, alone, at the ancient ruins of Abo at the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico, let me reflect on that time. The stars above shone as bright as I had ever seen them for the skies in this part of New Mexico are reasonably dark. The lights of Socorro, sixty miles away, provided a faint glow on the horizon, and the light of Albuquerque, just further than sixty files, another glow on the opposite side of the mission. As in the opening narrative above, a coyote howled in the distance, letting me know that some things never change.

Abi Night is the last of the three nightscapes and showcases the mission and pueblo in the Abo unit of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico. Although unoccupied since the 1600s, the mission still stands and makes an imposing foreground to the New Mexico night sky. Although not quite as pitch-black as the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness, it is still dark and the stars shine exceptionally bright. As with the Grand Canyon, however, modern civilization intrudes, with the cities of Socorro and Albuquerque contributing their glow to the scene. Still, it is not hard to imagine how this scene must have looked more than four hundred years ago.

When you get a chance, turn off your lights and step outside. Take a few moments looking up at the sky and let your imagination wander and roam. The stars above will be your guide. If you are in a city and you find yourself in the country, take a moment there to look up.

In the meantime, let these nightscapes inspire you!