It's still possible to be star struck in Harford [Commentary]


Having spent most of my life in Maryland's heavily populated areas – and yes, suburban Harford County falls into that category – it's been on relatively rare occasions that I get a good look at the stars.

Sure, I can spot the easy stuff while the dog looks for that perfect location on her last outdoor excursion of the evening. The Big Dipper is an easy one and can be seen year-round, and it is generally possible to get a look at Polaris, the North Star, using Dipper as a pointer. Orion can generally be seen come wintertime, and in the summer, depending on the alignment of planets, spotting Mars can be entertaining because of the tricks the sun's light plays using the atmosphere of the red planet and that of earth.

The night light show in the environs around Bel Air can be fairly enthralling, but it just takes an overnight outing a few miles beyond where the lights from shopping centers and neighborhoods dip beneath the horizon to be reminded of some of the reasons so much folklore came to be associated by playing connect the dots with stars.

From time to time on visits to planetariums, I've heard professional and hobbyist stargazers use words like "light pollution" to talk about the effect modern civilization has on the night sky. It really does make a difference.

Also, Maryland's natural wonder the Chesapeake Bay blasts enough humidity in the air to not only make summer afternoons sticky, but summer nights hazy.

Light and haze can combine to make looking up for constellations or other natural wonders of the sky seem somewhat lackluster. Heck, there have been times when I've been able to use the Big Dipper (or the Big Bear, if you prefer the ancient American idiom for the cluster) to find where the North Star should be, only to realize the combination of suburban light leakage and Chesapeake Bay evaporation have combined to obscure the natural navigational aid.

The good thing about light pollution is it doesn't take much to get away from it. On a camping trip over the weekend with my son, Nick, I had the good fortune to be reminded of this, as happens from time to time on camping trips, especially autumnal camping trips.

When the humidity is down, the sky is clear and the lights of suburbia are but a few miles away, the night sky takes on a look that's entirely different. Whereas it has the personality of eggshell white ceiling paint during dog walks in the suburbs, it is absolutely striking when it doesn't have to compete with parking lot lights.

To me, at least, the stars seem closer. It becomes possible to identify with people who didn't realize how far away they are and presumed them to be representations of things from this earth that had positioned themselves just out of reach in the sky.

A story about a little bear with a long tail, and the bigger bear who had lost its tail while using it to catch fish through the ice seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation for why the big bear and little bear — Big and Little Dippers — move around the North Star throughout the year, at least according to one of the versions of the story I've heard.

Another striking aspect of clear, autumn night skies away from heavily populated areas is, on first glance, it appears there's a massive thin cloud across part of the sky. It turns out, this is the Milky Way, and it also becomes clear how it got the name.

For me, such experiences remind me not only of the wonders of nature, but also just how massive nature really is compared to our puny efforts to do things like light up the night sky. It turns out, it was pretty well lighted all along.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad