The Dark Sky

By Duncan Lunan

When I was researching the Green Children of Woolpit in 1993  (Orkney News, 19th and 26th June), a cousin who knew the area recommended a guest house at Thurston, about five miles away.  He wasn’t bearing in mind that I didn’t have a car at the time.  I took the train from Thurston to Bury St. Edmunds, and caught the bus to Woolpit to visit the Bygones Museum, which the curators were kind enough to open for me.  I then walked up to the A45  (now the A14)  to locate various landmarks, and had a meal at the Bull Inn.  There was a Guinness promotion that evening, and I was invited to take part in a darts match, so the time passed very pleasantly.  Woolpit reminded me of Sanquhar, the Dumfriesshire village where my parents lived, so I thought I knew the ropes.

Woolpit village sign, photo by D. Lunan

In Sanquhar, however, the local taxis drove a brisk trade when the pubs closed.  My first surprise in Woolpit came when I went to call one, thinking I’d book in good time:  although the Thurston pub I’d been in the previous night had closed at midnight, apparently it shouldn’t have done because 11 p.m. closing was the norm.  My second surprise was that there was no local taxi service, at night at least.  From the phone box in the village centre, I established that there wasn’t one nearer than Bury St. Edmunds.  The cost of a 7-mile call-out would be astronomical.

However, that suggested the answer:  knowing the sky has let me find my way out of trouble before, including one memorable occasion in downtown Los Angeles.  The sky was hazy, but a few brighter stars were visible, enough to give me my bearings;  and I had an Ordnance Survey map, though I’d have to memorise the route because it was unlit almost the whole way.

It took two hours, twenty minutes, all told.  The northern sky was obscured but I could see the Summer Triangle of Vega, Deneb and Altair in the west, and the traffic noise from the A45 gave me a bearing when they were clouded over.  The sound of a freight train in the distance ahead was reassuring, because the line goes through Thurston.  A briefly clear sky in the east showed me the rising Pleiades and Aldebaran, and at the only junction where I was uncertain, a phone box told me just where I was and let me re-check the map.  Coming into Thurston, I found the street which led north through it to the guest house – and at that point, theatrically, the northern sky cleared to reveal the Plough and the Pole Star, straight ahead.  The only possible comment on that was, ‘A fat lot of good you’ve been tonight!’

Navigating from Woolpit to Thurston by the stars was the kind of thing any countryman or woman of the 12th century might have had to do.  With no paved roads, it would be a long hike even in daylight, with good weather.  There were no O.S. maps – maps showing roads were only just coming in, and the magnetic compass wasn’t used here till the 15th century.  And there would be no illuminated phone-box, half-way, in which to check the route;  no noise from the A45 or the railway for additional referents – and much more awareness of the wind and the animals in the fields, where there might still be wolves.  And apart from that, only the stars.  If they were friends to me in my minor inconvenience, they would mean a great deal more to anyone who had to do it eight centuries ago.  People did travel by night, especially when the sky was clear – in Children from the Sky I cited two cases of astronomical events seen by people on the road.

Our divorce from the night sky is extremely recent, even in the cities.  Edwin Dunkin’s The Midnight Sky:  Familiar Notes on the Stars and Planets  (The Religious Tract Society, London, 1869)  shows the full panoply of stars, month by month, from due south of St. Paul’s in London, and Hutchinson’s Splendour of the Heavens  (Rev. T.E.R. Phillips, Dr. H.W. Stevenson, eds., 1930), shows the brighter stars from Westminster Bridge, month by month, above the 1930 gas lamps, where now you’d be lucky to see more than the Moon and maybe the brighter planets.  That may seem fanciful, but in 1926 H.V. Morton wrote of  “the Plough flinging its clear symbol over a powdered sky” above the Embankment  (London by Night, 1926, reprinted in H.V. Morton’s London, Methuen, 1940).  In an old Encyclopaedia I’ve seen a plate of the stars from Blackpool beach, without the Illuminations, with the Tower silhouetted against the natural background glow of the sky, presumably in wartime.  Today everything would be lost in man-made glare;  but in the  12th century the monks, to whom it fell to chronicle untoward events, were particularly impressed by celestial ones because they so often had to be up for prayer and vigil during the hours of darkness.  At St. Albans in 1254, a remarkable display of aurora or parhelia was seen by monks who were “inspecting the stars to see if it was the hour to sing matins”:  this was more than eighty years before Abbot Richard of Wallingford built his great clock at St. Albans, to tell the hours of prayer as well as showing the movements of the Sun and Moon.  

Using first the school telescope and then my own, in my teens and twenties, there was a constant need to find new shaded places in back gardens;  it seemed as if the Council was determined to eliminate any which came to their attention, and indeed the neighbours may have been requesting just that.  I know astronomers who’ve had to fight bitter battles with local authorities over what the latter saw as their duty to light up the darkened parts of people’s gardens.  There is an entrenched belief now that more light equals more security:  when I was chair of the tenants’ group of the Argyle Local Housing Association in Glasgow, the only requests from the old people’s homes within our area were for more lights, more and more lights,  The amenity housing in Troon where I live now is floodlit by street lights on one side, the station on another, and its own security lights on the other two.  They just highlight the weak points, and we’ve recently had a drunk from another building penetrating ours and trying to force his way into our flat.  We hesitate to raise the issue with the Housing Association because their likely answer will be to add still more lights.

When my parents lived at Eliock, outside Sanquhar in Dumfriesshire, their cottage was surrounded by trees and was nicknamed ‘Seldom Seen’.  The dark sky was excellent, but after a major storm left them without power for a week, the SSEB insisted on cutting most of the surviving trees down.  That opened up a lot more sky from any given point, but unfortunately the neighbours uphill had installed a blinding security light with a sensor so sensitive that it could be triggered by movement in the fields several hundred yards away.  Going uphill past them brought no respite, because it brought into view the lights of Sanquhar, and beyond them the glow of Kilmarnock and Glasgow.

When my parents moved to Sutherland, to sheltered housing at Ardgay, at first the sky was lit up by streetlights, in Ardgay itself and across the water at Bonar Bridge.  Initially I was delighted when the Council decided to instal capped, dark-sky compatible streetlights instead – I’d already seen how effective they could be at Darlington in north-east England.  All I had to do was get above them.  But as I went uphill above Ardgay, I realised that instead of getting darker, the sky ahead of me was getting brighter with what could only be the glow from Inverness, about 20 miles to the south.

When I first started going to Rosehall, further north, it had a terrific night sky with no light pollution at all.  But as year followed year, remorselessly, the glare from Inverness in the south was moving up the sky.  I don’t know how far up it extends now, and I haven’t the heart to find out.

Big Bear Lake Solar Observatory

My trips abroad have been sometimes rewarding, sometimes frustrating.  My four months stranded in California in 1984 gave me the opportunity to check out the sky at a number of locations, and I wrote up the results in several articles for Astronomy Quarterly when I got back, contrasting them with ‘Astronomy in New York’ the following year.  Big Bear Lake in the Sierras, 6500 feet up  (2000 feet higher than you can get in the UK without an aircraft),  has an excellent night sky, stabilised by the water of the artificial lake  (flooded as a tourist attraction when the gold mines gave out).  Its dedicated solar observatory is at the end of an artificial pier to maximise the stabilising effect, and I was given a special tour of it by its British Director Dr. Paterson.  The contrast was very marked when I visited the Juniper Lake private observatory, out on the high desert – although there was no surrounding light at all, the contrasting temperature layers in the air above made the M13 globular cluster shimmer like a ballroom globe reflecting multiple spotlights, with only moments of clarity to see the actual stars.

Big Bear Solar Observatory, California Institute of Technology, 1984

After I lectured on Man and the Planets at the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, Jerry Pournelle took me in his Morgan up to visit Larry Niven at his home above the city.  But we detoured to pause  in front of Harlan Ellison’s house, to see the spectacular panorama of lights.  “Does it look familiar?” asked Jerry, and indeed it did.  “It should,” he replied, “because Steven Spielberg turned it upside-down and used it for the underside of the Mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Mothership over Devil’s Tower, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977

The Griffith Observatory in the heart of Los Angeles sits on a low hill, below the Hollywood Sign but barely above the surrounding sea of lights.  It still shows the Moon and the planets to the public and does valuable work on monitoring variable stars  (see last week’s article).  But ominously, a small cluster of faint lights on the skyline was pointed out to me.  Those were the support buildings of the historic Mount Wilson Observatory, then threatened with closure due to the withdrawal of funding because of light pollution.  A few days later I was treated to a VIP tour there, by Mike Urban of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, who was one of the team controllers on the Voyager 2 spacecraft.  His hope and the Mount Wilson scientists’ was that as a foreign writer, I made be able to help the campaign to save it.  It was made clear to me how much valuable work the Observatory could still do, and in particular, how a continuous record of solar activity over the 11-year sunspot cycle  (again with a dedicated solar telescope, its image stabilised by a long shaft into the ground to the projection room)  was likely to be left uncompleted.  I did write up the issues for Astronomy Quarterly, but the Observatory subsequently closed for several years before new sources of finding could be located.

Griffith Observatory by night, EHStock-Stockphoto

In places around the Bay Area of San Francisco there were still places of excellent seeing, particularly the views south from the ‘Greyhaven’ writers’ community in Berkeley, CA.  Other areas were badly affected by light pollution – friends from Oakland who went to a public park to see a NASA experiment generating an artificial comet, reported that they could see only “first magnitude objects like Jupiter, Sirius and San Francisco”.

60 inch Hooker reflecting telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains of California

In 2005 I spent four months in Turkey helping a friend try to launch an astronomy tour business.  His chosen location was Dalyan, on the shore of Lake Köyceğiz.  As the whole region was a conservation area it seemed ideal, and indeed there were fantastic skies to be seen in the surrounding hills, on the lake, and even in Dalyan itself during the not infrequent power cuts.  But Turkish citizens were exempt from the conservation regulations, and seemed determined to eliminate the natural asset of the dark sky as quickly as possible.  The all-night floodlit football stadium, which opened at the river outflow while we there, spoiled the darkness over much of the lake not only for astronomy, but for wildlife such as birds and the very rare freshwater turtles – which the tour boats were lighting up with spotlights in any case.  At the beach down river, conservationists were banned from access, while the sands were illuminated to show the nesting saltwater turtles to the tourists.  Their young were able to find their way to the water nevertheless, but the turtles’ young weren’t.  I came back from Turkey after four months having loss all my money, and I won’t be going again.

Lake Köyceğiz, Turkey (D. Lunan, 2005)

In the magazine which Linda and I produced to accompany publication of Children from the Sky in 2012, I wrote, ‘It’s important to realise how striking, and how little understood, events in the night sky were in the 11th to 14th centuries.  We are now so cut off from the sky, especially the night sky, that there’s a serious Dark Skies Campaign, which I strongly support, to get some of it back.’  More about that next week!

(To be continued).

Children from the Sky, a speculative interpretation of a medieval mystery – the Green Children of Woolpit, by Duncan Lunan  (Mutus Liber, 2012), is available from bookshops or through Amazon.  For details of it and of Duncan’s other books, see his website, www.duncanlunan.com.

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2 replies »

  1. Hi Duncan
    I wrote this in m’blog http://www.spanglefish.com/berniesblog/blog.asp ….

    “Crawick Multiverse….
    We watched a recorded episode of ‘Ian Robertson Rambles’ in which, while walking in Dumfries & Galloway, Ian visited Crawick Multiverse – not verse as in poetic verse – though the place is a form of poetry – verse as in many Universes – constellations, galaxies and the Milky Way are laid out across the land….. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Koo0rRZwf6c

    Ian tells us that when this open-cast coal mine became defunct, the Duke of Buccleuch commissioned Robert Jencks to plan and produce the landscape – it’s a wonder. I’d love to go there – doubt if I will be able to – doubt if I’ll go off-island again but – Ian Robertson takes us to these places, even those of us who aren’t likely to go there in ‘reality’.

    And – these places exist – that’s what matters. It’s one of the rare occasions when I can see some point in the aristocracy – when someone like the Duke of Buccleuch has the imagination, inspiration and interest in the common weal to use his land ownership and wealth to commission someone who also has imagination and inspiration – to produce such a place.
    Looking at the plan – many echoes of ancient sites – stone rows & circles….. https://www.crawickmultiverse.co.uk/ . What might people make of this in 5,000 year’s time? If we’re still here…..”

    Imagine reading the skies from there!