One Tuesday, Aug. 28, there was a full lunar eclipse. You pretty much had to be on the West Coast to see it in America. In Seattle, we often miss celestial displays because of cloud cover – we may not be the rainiest place in North America, but we are overcast. It's a crap shoot whether we'll see an eclipse or a meteor shower or a comet.
This August has been particularly dreary. University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass said on KUOW-FM recently that August 2007 has been the third-coldest and wettest in the past 30 years. The little Japanese maples know: Some began turning fall colors mid-month.
So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that during the wee hours of the 28th, the skies were predicted to be clear. Monday night, my partner and I set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. Tuesday – about midway through the eclipse. At that hour we were jangled awake, threw on our clothes, and went outside to see what we could see.
From the parking lot of our apartment complex in Seattle, we had a great view of the fully eclipsed moon. It hung like a blood orange in the sky. Instead of looking like a flat white disk, it was a dusky ball. Through binoculars, it seemed fully three-dimensional, and eerie for that. You got the sense that it really was another heavenly body, not simply a series of lemon slices pasted on the dark felt of the sky.
The major constellations were out, too. I've noticed that you can see more sky down by Lake Washington because of the vast, lightless spread of the water. We hopped into the car to look for an even darker place – a place where we could escape the street lights.
A few years ago, people talked more about light pollution and how it has blocked out the night sky. Some groups, nationally and locally, are still concerned. They say that 30 years ago, you could see the Milky Way from Seattle, and I certainly remember being able to see it from the roof of my house on summer nights. Now only the most incandescent of stars break through the glare. You have to go west of the Olympics or to Eastern Oregon to really escape light pollution. (Here's a map of Northwest light pollution.)
We followed Lake Washington Boulevard south and I had forgotten, but the stretch between Mount Baker bathing beach and the Stan Sayres Pits has no street lamps. Your headlights alone pull you down the empty, curving road, and it brought back memories: Yes, this is what it used to be like before the street lamps were everywhere, before so many people left the lights on all the time. We stopped at Genesee Park, a black patch that allowed us an unobstructed look at a moon that was in earth's shadow. We paid tribute to the beauty of darkness.
On the way home, we thought about the loss of the night sky, how millions – even billions – of people on our increasingly urbanized planet grow up without the stunning nightly display of the heavens.
We design cities to be more dense and more walkable, but what about more celestial? Darker cities are more sustainable cities. More eco-friendly. We could have fewer lights, street lamps directed toward the ground, a habit of darkening empty buildings, a plan to slow down the 24-hour society. These things could improve livability and return the heavens to everyone. It might also restore a sense of scale if we could actually see our galactic neighborhood.
It could also help "walkability" by giving us something to witness in the wee hours, something to crawl out of our caves for – maybe even a sobering sight for the revelers who spill out of the nightclubs and bars at 2 a.m. It might provide solace for the homeless and encouragement for the grave-yard shift workers. It might help us all feel – it sounds like a contradiction – more grounded.