|A Moon from a different sky|
“There dragons and beasties out there in the night to snatch you if fall”
(Ian Anderson – No Lullaby)
“Uncountable” takes on a whole new depth of meaning when you look at the stars in a truly dark sky. Numbers fail. Metaphor becomes needed, but still falls short. Without the drowning background of streetlights, headlights and unused office lamps the faintest stars come out and the sky fills and fills. It’s a sight of astounding beauty and wonder. It brings a feeling of smallness, but not in a way that makes me feel lessened. It brings a feeling of remarkableness, but not in way that needs explanation in the fanciful. I stand there in the darkness and look into the near infinity of space and know the importance of the things that I hold close, and the wonderful possibility of the things that are far away.
And out of the darkness a voice says: “Stay close by Jasper*, this is when the animals come out”. In a scene of deep wonder, the voice needs to tell (remind I would think) a child that danger lurks in the shadows, that the night is full of fear and that we still need to huddle round the darkness banishing fires to stay safe. In some places and at some times this may still be true, but we are on a Family Star Gazing Tour at a tourist destination, less than 250 m from a Post Office and supermarket that sells bananas for 30 cents and has weekly specials on circular saws, chocolate and plastic storage boxes. In this time and place, the dragons and beasties that may snatch you if you fall, probably only exist between the ears of the speaker. The snakes will be still, chilled in winter sleep, the dingoes banished and the flesh eating mega fauna long, long extinct, flayed by spear point or driven to end of the life tree by a change in the weather. Jasper may be crushed under the weight of acquired fear, but I doubt that he will be eaten by ferocious wild animals.
A thin sliver of Moon silver hangs in the darkening sky and the last turn of daylight fades below the horizon. This is night like it no longer exists in the city; dark, but star full bright. The kind of night and sky that would have been watched by the first people who walked over the land; people who looked to the stars made stories for safety and comfort during the long night. They saw patterns and faces, birds and fish, just as we see faces in the folds of the curtain and animal shapes in rocky headlands and hilltops. The more they looked the more they saw, seeing order and seeking meaning in the things they knew and creating stories to explain the things that were unknown. Stories grow from such observation, and with a few exceptions, we can see the same night lights as these first walkers, although now we tell very different stories about the distant fires in the sky at night.
|Same stars, different sky|
Stories beget stories, new visions are added and old ones are (sometimes) placed back into the space of imagination from where they came – but as the stories change the understandings they bring change. The rules of the stories change, bringing new constraints, new ways of seeing. There is a continuum from the skyward glance of fireside stories to our prized satellites peering into the deepest of parts of space. Some people suggest that we no longer need our stories of space; of time so deep and distances so vast that they defy comprehension. But under this sky, with real gasps of surprise coming from most voices, it’s clear that the sky can still create a sense of wonder that makes people think “I wonder why?”, “I wonder what?” and “You don’t suppose ……..” – questions that cure diseases, solve problems and mean we no longer live in caves or need to tremble in fear at the thought of things we don’t understand.
Two telescopes – technological sky eyes – sit on steady tripods. Computer controlled, they can track across the sky, pointing to 47,000 different objects (just a drop in a drop in an ocean) at the push of a button. The computer swings the telescope towards Saturn. I look through it thinking I know what I will see – a blurred image, a half sharp image. But I’m wrong. It looks just like it should – just as the comic book and serious tomes suggest it will be. Bright with glowing rings. The ring space clear and sharp. There is no need to use imagination or the squint that turns the reality into the textbook picture. It’s a clear vision of the way things are.
We know the stars are nuclear furnaces of unimaginable size, but the mind still sees butterfly shapes in the bright points and flightless birds in the dark spaces in between. The same brains look up today as looked up in the past; it’s a connection beyond language, and culture. Before we sow the seeds of fear in our children’s minds we should let them feel the wonder of the night’s sky. Armed with stories that tell the truth about the night and the sky, there’s no need to be afraid of moonlight.
Hello darkness, my old friend.
(Simon and Garfunkle, The sound of silence)
People flash their head torches at each other, laughing at the way the red light changes the colour of hair and jackets. It’s winter, with a chill in the air, and kids are wrapped in scarves and hats. Our guide for the night wears a large furry hat, with pull down earflaps. It’s not really a good look. Despite claims to the contrary, we are about to go for a night walk around one of the open enclosures in the Desert Wildlife Park in Alice Springs.
The animals are at liberty, but they are not free, they are not wild. For some of them, the very fact that they are alive is remarkable enough to overcome the disappointment of looking at caged animals rather than the promised wild ones. As we walk through the electric wire fence, designed to keep the animals in and the cats and foxes out, the questions begin from a couple of kids. “What is the most dangerous animal here?”, “Are there any snakes?” The under-current of fear is here as well – and the rustling in the bushes does not help.
Small rats – Stick Nest Rats to be accurate – bustle about in the darkness, causing squeaks of joy and murmurs of discontent. They hide under bushes and sprint between shadows. This was a once common animal, now much reduced by changes in the way fire moves through the land, and by the teeth of the animals kept outside the fence. A Marla hops past – a small kangaroo looking animal that was brought back from edge of extinction by a captive breeding program. This individuals are old and past their prime and have been put out to pasture in the safety of the spacious darkness. I’m not sure if this is a fate to aspire to, or one to avoid. Echidnas feed from a protein slurry, hidden beneath a rock at the base of a tree. A Burrowing Bettong wanders past. And then, a Bilby. Many of these nocturnal animals, with their strange names, were once widespread, even abundant. But now they are much reduced and for most of us, the only chance we get to see them will be in zoos like this; marsupial rest homes where cats and foxes are kept out, and where people in fur skin hats look after them. These animals are not scared of moonlight, but shun the sunlight. They find shelter in the darkness, as well as food and drink. To see them is treat, but I can’t help but wish for the wild.
We are given a sheet of coloured cellophane and an elastic band to modify our torches. People flash them at each other, laughing at the way the red light changes the colour of hair and jackets. It’s summer, with a soft sea breeze. The wind picks at untucked shirts and moves the legs of loose shorts. Our guide for the night wears a peaked cap, with redundant sunglasses resting on top. It’s a familiar look.
We drive away from our house on Bruny Island as the summer sun fades, and the kids chatter in excitement. Such is the nature of a young suburbanites life that a trip out at night is a bit of an adventure. The sky is not yet dark enough for there to be stars – we are far enough south for the summer days to be long and the nights to be short – but the dash-board of the car begins to light up with a galaxy of its own.
Standing on the top of the hill that overlooks The Neck you can see the thin strip of sand that links North and South Bruny. The sea pushes in on both sides and the sun finally lights up the patchy cloud. I pause at the top of the hill as the rest wander down, pretending to be waiting for the light, but just wanting to breathe in the air that last hit land as the wind in Antarctica. It’s a nice feeling. Down at the beach, behind a wooden fence, weather beaten down to dull silver, we wait for penguins. Either they were late or we were early, because there were no penguins. People conjure birds in the surf, but they never become real. The kids fidget and ask, “When will the penguins be here?” There is a brief pulse of excitement as a huge moth flies past, looking more like a winged sausage than a nocturnal insect. We decide to leave for a while and look for other animals that are afraid of sunlight.
Within a few hundred metres of driving onto North Bruny a small animal runs across the road, its bright eyes and white spots shining back from the headlight’s glare. It’s an Eastern Quoll – a marsupial predator, which in the past was known as a Marsupial Cat, and you can see why. They have pointy noses and a tumbling gait. Their tails run to the fluffy and if it were not for the sharp teeth its insect rich diet demands, they would look like a perfect pet. The size, movement and cartoon spots make an almost irresistible combination. At one time we can see them on both sides of the road, which reduces the squabbles from the back seat no end. We see close to a dozen of these little animals, and it’s sobering to think that they were once widespread and common. Now we are on the only place on Earth where you can still see these animals in the numbers they occurred in the past. They may be afraid of sunlight, but it really is the least of their problems.
Back at the beach the penguins have arrived. Classically comical they walk, stiff legged and kneeless, out of the surf and onto the beach. There they gather in nervous looking groups before they dash (if an animal with no knees can dash) over the open beach to the cover of the dunes. There are no predators over the beach tonight and the birds seem to relax as soon as they make cover. They shake their beaks vigorously, and shoot out what must be penguin snot. They cackle and call and flap their water wings ineffectively in the thin air. These are Little or Fairy penguins that can be found along the south coast of Australia – there is even a colony in St. Kilda in Melbourne.
We hand back the cellophane and elastic bands and walk back towards the car. Penguins sit in the entrances to their burrows and seem to talk to the neighbours. Two more quolls dash across the road before we get home. By the time we arrive it’s fully dark.
* This name has been changed to protect the identity of the child whose parents seem to want to fill him with fear rather than wonder.