While visiting a northern cottage recently I was able to sit outside and contemplate the night-time sky. This is usually impossible in the summer as either the weather is not favourable, the bugs are too numerous, or a full or partial moon throws too much light to see many stars clearly. On this night, all the conditions were perfect as there was no moon, the sky was completely clear, and the biting insects had miraculously disappeared.
I reclined in a lounge chair until I was completely prone and stared out at the endless expanse of shimmering stars. A pair of binoculars helped me get a better look, and to lose myself in an infinite view. At this time of the year in North America, the Milky Way galaxy appears as a wide dim stream of dark and pale cloudy light across the sky. Here in the night sky, with little light pollution, I could easily view the majestic Milky Way. True to its name, it felt as though I was staring into a vast ocean of dark that sparkles with a huge whirl of wispy, faint white light.
My father Marius taught us that the stars on clear nights guided travellers across the land. He didn’t teach me any constellations, but he showed my brothers and I how the formation of what is known as the Big Dipper provides a way of pointing to the north. He always reminded me that, no matter the season, this formation of stars would always help me find my way home.
While growing up in Attawapiskat, we had many opportunities to view the night-time sky. There is little light pollution up the James Bay coast and when we headed out on the land we were swallowed by darkness. In the chaos and dysfunction of growing up in the community, the eerie darkness of the night and the light of so many stars helped us forget our worries and made us wonder about the wider world above our heads.
At my cottage, those days came back to me. Once again, the starry night sky came to comfort me. I forgot about the current global crisis. The idea of seeing so many distant points of light made my mind wander from the worries of the world, the dread of a pandemic and the never-ending stream of depressing news headlines filling our televisions, computers and smartphones.
I did some astrophotography with the bit of camera equipment I had on hand. My set-up, although not sophisticated, was enough to capture some long exposure images of the galaxy overhead. On one of my images, I was happy to discover that I could see the faint outline of Andromeda, the nearest galaxy to our own at 2.5 million light years away. I could also see it as a dim, hazy, almond-shaped cloud through my binoculars. I am always amazed at this image in the sky because it means I am looking at light that left that galaxy two and a half million years ago. There is nothing like staring at the heavens to remind you of how insignificant we are as humans.
If you have a moment once the sun has gone down, step away from your devices for a moment and go outside when the sky is clear or even partially clear. Find a spot to sit or lie down away from artificial light. Take a moment to adjust your vision to the dark, then find the milky band of cloudy light that is in fact an illumination of billions of stars within our own galaxy. Even if you don’t know your constellations, important stars or the location of galaxies, clusters, nebula or other heavenly bodies, just realize that every point of light you are viewing is often tens, hundreds or thousands of light years away.
I really believe that troubled times and worried minds fade away when we take the opportunity to look up and connect to a greater reality and the wonder of it all.