On Katharine Coles, ‘Dark Sky’
The poem I was given, ‘Dark Sky’, has seven sections in it, but I will only read a small section. The poem basically has to do with the Keck Drone, which was funded by the Keck Foundation and built by students at the University of Utah to measure artificial light. The Keck Foundation has also now funded the development of a minor on Dark Skies Studies, which the poet, Katharine Coles, is helping to develop.
Being an astronomer, I’ve been quite familiar with light pollution for a while. I was first properly introduced to light pollution and its potential issues, or the problems it causes, as an undergraduate in Toronto. Now, as a professional astronomer, I don’t actually use telescopes very often myself; I mostly do computer simulations; though of course, as theorists we always try to model what we see in nature. We want to try and explain what we’re seeing. And in order to see and explain the things that are happening in the universe, we need to be able to use telescopes. Light pollution is a large hinderance to this.
Light pollution also has a lot of other, very adverse, effects. It affects wildlife behaviour and development, and it can strongly disrupt animal migratory patterns, and plant physiology. It’s also fairly well known at this point that too much light at night — too much artificial light — significantly impacts the amount of melatonin that is produced in humans. Decreased levels of melatonin are associated with a wide range of health issues, including (just to mention a few) immune function, sleep deprivation, and various kinds of cancer, in particular breast cancer.
The reason I picked this particular section of this seven-part poem to read is because of its mention of the Milky Way. The Milky Way is our own galaxy: it’s the strip of stars you see at night when you don’t have much light pollution. It’s what we see when we look into the disc of our own galaxy. Our sun is just one of two hundred billion stars in our Milky Way, and lives in this disc.
1. Held together with duct tape and bungees
Our drone hovers, ticking off the street lights
Lining our cities, which used to lie,
Patient animals, under the night. Now,
They buzz and shimmer, bad news, like us
Full of glitter: hear them always
Humming. Don’t measure. Don’t stargaze
To find your way: dark space also travels
Between glimmers and maps a continent
Where this idea arose full of vastness
And motion, opening all night. How
Do you track yourself through that -scape
Pin to pinprick, fireplace to fire? Do you
Lose yourself if you can’t get lost?
2. Get lost, we say. And can’t. We
Build straight boulevards not to, lamp them,
Stand in the foothills admiring the view
We made, five-hundred square miles of heaven
Ordering the void. When we were children,
The sky whelmed overhead, stars so dense
We named the whole grand gesture for milk
Spilling a path. But later, slipping out
After bedtime, we ghosted unlit backyards
Tree to tree, shadow to story, our routes
Defined by darkness. Have we forgotten
The geography of the night, so eager to see
Right where we place our feet? Until
We forget how to find our way.
3. Forgetting ourselves, now we find our way
With just one sense, not by nerve and skin
Exquisitely tuned, by nose or song, but deep
Inside our heads where image lives, vision’s
Push-me-pull-you commandeering what
Little brain we use. We let the rest
Go dark, wrap our feet with leather
And nylon so they can’t feel the path
Rising up to meet them, and can’t recall
How we once kept our balance by
Losing it, skeletons swaying, suspended
Sole to skull. When was the last time
You felt hair lifting on your arms?
Or tasted air — do you remember?
4. Taste the air. Remember
Something or someone you can all but
Name moves behind you, becoming
Atmosphere. My ears are plugged in
Half the time to voices coming at me
A continent away, across an ocean,
And wouldn’t hear a foot set down
Right next to me. We fear
The thing we can’t see, and only that.
As shadows retreat into their corners
We no longer find the need to wonder
What they hide. Or no longer need
Our sense of wander, and forget
Mystery moves us, and the dark within —
5. Or misery? To remove the dark within
We illuminate ourselves. I walk down
My front path and a light goes on, mere
Presence switching it, automatic. I wonder
How it sees me, by what particular
Eye. One sensor picks up heartbeat,
Another sees heat. One emits
Rays and waits for their reflection. Bat
-like, my favorite pulses sonar then
Listens for my return. Were I an insect
Flying, it could intercept me, hung
-er swimming down the dark. Except
Our fixture’s flightless and I’m no lightning bug,
Just a small body, opening a door —
6. any small body. Any door ajar.
We’re not all that moves. The screech owl
Housing in the maple above our walk trips
Our light all night, all spring. We duct-tape
A camera one birch over, night-adapted,
Triggered by wings. The male lofts across
Our screen with food for mate then chicks:
Grey ghost of worm dangling from his beak,
Ghost of mouse, once or twice a vole,
Limp and heavy. Blinked on when he passes
Light blinds our silent movie, any eye
Using the dark to see. We switch it off. In high
Midsummer daylight, one high noon
The owlets fledge. And in a week are gone.
7. The owlets have fledged, here then gone
Then there, who-whoing out the deeper
Shade of oaks, twitching infrared cameras
Rigged at the back fountain, and we turn our
Backs to the view, close our eyes to recall what
Stars once looked like, overbrimming sky,
Reminding us the way to find by dark. Then,
Distance, brimming in us: do you
Remember your unknowing? Being us,
I guess we need to see. Seeing, we forget
Without the dark no light the universe
Sends us means a thing. Human, up to
Here in meaning, we jury-rig machines. So
Pass the tape and bungees. Hold together.
The Keck Drone, assembled as described, flies city streets at night and measures artificial light. It is part of the Dark Sky Project at the University of Utah, which has assembled a diverse group of scholars and experts from the sciences, arts, humanities, and other fields to research, educate on, and find solutions to light pollution.