WOSTER: The grandeur of a starlit sky
Years ago, I used to talk sometimes with a wonderful woman named Alice Kundert about the wonder each of us found in the night sky when we were growing up in our parts of rural South Dakota.
Alice was from the Mound City area in Campbell County. She served as state auditor, secretary of state and a member of the South Dakota House of Representatives, but she never forgot her roots. I've written about her memory of thunderstorms at night on the prairie, how the darkness -- in the days before the REA strung lines to every farm -- was so complete it seemed to have a life of its own.
We talked sometimes, too, about the night sky when not a cloud obscured the stars and not a light from below stole any of the grandeur from the twinkling of objects light years away but seeming close enough to reach out and touch. Her childhood prairie was a long way from mine in Lyman County, but as anyone who grew up in a farm or ranch in South Dakota six or eight decades ago understands, we were familiar with each other's place. In those situations, you don't have to have been there to have been there, you know?
During one conversation, we agreed that it was very unromantic of the scientists to try to tell us that the starlight we were enjoying might be coming from an object so far away that it had long since burned out, even as its glow traveled across the universe to where we stood in our farmyards trying to identify constellations and numbering the stars in the Big Dipper.
The astronomers who figured that one out could have gone forever without passing the news along, we agreed.
Alice is gone, but I thought of her just the other evening as I gazed at the night sky from a plateau up the hill from Soldier Creek. There were a few yard lights far, far off across the ridgelines, but only a few, and they were so distant as to not interfere with the light show overhead.
It was one of those nights when the sky was empty of clouds, when the moon had waned and was unseen in the hour before midnight and when the entire heaven was sprinkled with stars, from horizon to horizon. People pay good money to have such a scene painted on the ceiling of their child's bedroom. The Artist upon whose canvas I gazed the other evening did it without commission or thought of making money on the deal.
The Milky Way was full, heavy-looking. The Dipper blazed, plain to see. As a youngster, I sometimes struggled to make out the shape as my dad pointed up so I could look along his outstretched arm. Lights from distant aircraft blinked as they moved among the stars. Other objects blinked and disappeared, and I squinted to see if I'd really seen anything at all. A single comet flared briefly.
As a child, I knew night skies like this and thought little of it. Wordsworth, writing about stars rather than daffodils, still would have said, "I gazed -- and gazed -- but little thought what wealth the show to me had brought.''
I thought it strange, in fact, that my Uncle George, my dad's big brother, would get so excited about the stars when he would bring his family from Kansas City for a visit.
"You never see a sky like this in the city,'' he'd say as he stood, legs spread and head thrown back to the heavens. When we'd visit our Kansas City relatives, I'd be too busy playing to think about the stars and the night sky.
When I spent a year in Omaha at Creighton, I really began to understand what Uncle George meant. The lights of the city were visible for miles and miles north of town, and from the window of my second-floor room in Wareham Hall, all I could see was the glow of electric lights.
In that year of city living, I came to miss night skies like the one I enjoyed just the other evening.