Shreya Sen-Handley | Don’t lose sight of starry, starry nights
After all, can anything be more arresting than the night sky?
“She walks in beauty like the night,” rhapsodised Byron about one of the innumerable women he’d romanced in his short but rakish life. Yet, whatever you might say of the Romantic Poets (I’m partial to their sharp-eyed lyricism myself), when it came to praising pulchritude, they were unparalleled.
After all, can anything be more arresting than the night sky? Gaze at it a moment and let it draw you in, with its sumptuous dark shades, velvety soft decadence, and divine spherical harmony, leaving you night-drunk and starry-eyed.
Makes you wonder why the night gets such a bad rap, right?
Remember Michael Jackson’s Thriller? “It's close to midnight/Something evil's lurking in the dark/Under the moonlight/You see a sight that almost stops your heart”. He was spot-on with that last line, but heart-stopping sights are of many kinds, and one man’s nightmare can be another’s nocturnal rapture. So, why on earth do the duskier hours have such a benighted reputation? To the extent that hordes of horrible myths, and even more horrific derogatory terms, have sprung up around it!
There are undoubted dangers lurking in the dark, not least the likes of Michael Jackson (if all the revelations that emerged in his final years are to be believed). At night, criminals go on the prowl, potholes are harder to spot and easier to fall down, and our worst fears prey on us without a by-your-leave.
I myself dreaded those shadowy nighttime hours when, deep in the clutches of post-natal depression, every anxiety that my exhausted brain could conjure assailed me. Spurred by insomnia into keeping my parched peepers pinned on the pitch-black skies, it became the blank canvas on which all my real and imagined troubles were projected. But then I learned to turn it around, to observe the bountiful night sky with new eyes, and now the darkest hours of the night are the most soothing. Because it is comfort and recuperation I find now when I drink it in.
I still have trouble sleeping, but I have transformed the night sky from oppressor to ally. Learning to look past the apparent opacity of the darkness, I’ve discovered a million delights dimpling its immense swathe. From my bedroom window, past the branches of the trees that stretch like Michaelangelean fingers reaching for divinity, I can see glittering galaxies. On nature’s Sistine Chapel, I spy big and little bears lumbering apace. I notice Venus nudging Mars gently along in its celestial haste. I also see mysterious glimmers in space which are revealed to be soaring airplanes, or helicopters hovering overhead, dissolving my awe into amusement, but never into tears again.
On caravanning holidays, which I wasn’t sure I would enjoy when my husband and children and I first embarked upon them, with the promise of cold evenings and creepy crawlies that were contingent, I might struggle to sleep, spending all night looking up at the stars through the skylight above my bed, yet emerge refreshed in the morning, eager to get on with another day.
Humanity has always looked to the stars for reassurance, reading their future in their cosmic movement. And if astrology, practised by slippery priests, newspaper seers, and Linda Goodman, isn’t something in which I perceive particular merit (though plenty of entertainment), astronomy is a different orb-game. Aryabhata, Galileo, Isro and more, have disseminated enough scientific knowledge about our vast living space, and the interdependence of each of its constituents, for us to prize the universe even more than the ancients.
And yet, in the light of how stargazing has led us to unearth so many galactic mysteries, isn’t it galling we’re no longer interested in it? Smartphones and other addictive screens have distanced us from the thrills of the largest and most amazing display there is, as well as one of our oldest passions.
Worse even than our narrowing interests, is the escalating light pollution that’s made it impossible for a third of our planet to view heavenly bodies at night, when in fact they should be able to see thousands with the naked eye. This visibility loss indicates a galloping increase in the kind of effluence that creates what’s called a ‘sky glow’, obliterating our view of constellations and upsetting our diurnal bodily cycles, which not only impacts our health but that of every animal. Sadly and ironically, the very reason I’m up at night scanning the stars — our declining health as a planet — is also why we cannot spy enough of them.
Just another reason to fight against the degradation of our environment, if further proof was indeed required to convince us to save our planet, and the generations that will inherit it.
I cannot imagine not being able to look up at the stars at night and feel the kind of contentment only matched by family-time. Fact is, it’s my family I think of when I stare into the nocturnal skies. I remember the night Halley’s Comet streaked over our Kolkata roof garden, its undulating tail trailing fire and excitement. I can recall my sister, aunt, cousins, parents and grandparents, gathered together that balmy evening, watching that wonder of our world awe-struck and beaming. Later, we raised a toast to its resplendent homecoming, as we feasted on my grandmother’s fabulous cooking.
What’s life after all but the blessings of nature and kinship?