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When my oldest son was in school, his science teacher explained to the class that the Milky Way is the galaxy we live in. One student asked how the Milky Way got its name, and Turner spoke up saying that it was a glowing white stripe that you could see in the night sky.
His teacher disagreed. Not because it was a glowing white stripe in the night sky, just that it cannot be seen — except by special electronic equipment. After class, he asked the teacher if she meant it could not be seen now or that it could never be seen. She responded that it cannot be seen now or in the past unless using something to enhance the light from it, and usually in spectrums we cannot see with human eyes.
When he tried to explain she was wrong, he was slightly reprimanded and asked to drop the debate.
The fact is, the Milky Way can be seen, and I had shown it to him on a trip to the mountains in the past. However, in most places in the United States, especially urban and even suburban areas, it is almost impossible to discern from the light pollution.
To me, the stars are fascinating, especially under dark, clear skies. When the opportunity arose to have a comet that potentially could be the brightest in several decades and a meteor shower would converge on the same night, I had to get to a place to be able to see the wonders of the heavens.
It so happens the Outer Banks of North Carolina have some of the darkest skies in the eastern half of the United States. They are not quite Badlands and Yellowstone dark skies, but they are pretty close.
A couple of photographer friends and myself went there to capture the meteor shower, some star trails and hopefully Comet 46P, although it was a little early to see the comet without aid.
As fun as it was to shoot, it was even more enjoyable watching Alex witness the skies.
Alex is from the North, and it was his first trip to the Outer Banks. The lighthouses fascinated him, as they do many people. In fact, the lighthouses are one of my favorite things about coastal waters. But once the sun set and the skies lit up like a Christmas tree, with stars upon stars shining under the canopy of darkness, his expression changed.
To follow the Christmas tree comment prior, he became like a kid on Christmas morning. In fact, we all did. The meteor shower, which from the lack of hype it was getting prior, we thought would be mediocre at best. Instead, under those dark skies, God’s fireworks were streaking everywhere and at times, as prolific as 10 per minute.
Picture three grown men with thousands of dollars of camera equipment saying: “There’s one. Hey, there goes another. Wow, did you see that one?” We giggled and laughed the whole time as the show unfolded.
It was that type of night. In fact, it was that way from dusk until dawn, as we stayed up the entire night, shooting and watching and talking. It did make me wonder as I often do with things like this, how awesome it must have been for those that lived hundreds of years ago to see this every clear night.
Then the thought crossed my mind, that maybe only a few really appreciated it, because the Milky Way, the stars and the meteors were commonplace, so it was actually not as awe inspiring once people became adults — much like we are today with things that we take for granted.
So perhaps, our technological age that brings about all this artificial light from our civilized areas is a bridge to help us gain that childlike awe we should have always had when viewing the heavens. It is certainly something to think about as we approach the holiday season with all things we should not take for granted.
Bill Howard is an avid bowhunter and outdoorsman. He teaches hunter education (IHEA) and bowhunter education (IBEP) in North Carolina. He is a member of North Carolina Bowhunters Association and Pope & Young, and is an official measurer for both.