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.
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!
Abo 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!