Dark skies, forest parks, meteors and the Milky Way. The perfect evening is a cloudless sky and a new moon in August.
Few things are as simple and yet powerful as sleeping outside under the stars. I would compare it to meditation, but it’s far simpler than that. All you have to do is look up, with patience, curiosity, and an open heart. Much easier than sitting still with your eyes closed and concentrating for long periods of time. And instantly more rewarding.
We’ve been doing it for millennia, staring deep into the history of the universe and experiencing the same humbling awe and wonder today as our our ancestors did deep in the history of our species. Perhaps our Neanderthal cousins felt the same way, lying by the embers of a slowly dying fire, staring up at the sky, satisfied, with a full belly and the safety net of their companions close by, noticing a familiar grouping of bright white dots and wondering what they are, where they come from, what propels them through the sky, and maybe, even, what they mean.
I probably sleep outside more often than most people, but I certainly don’t do it enough. Cue the annual Perseid meteor shower and a new (to me) excuse to grab my sleeping bag and camera and set off for somewhere dark. Somewhere really dark.
GALLOWAY FOREST PARK, A DARK SKY RESERVE
If you’re lucky enough to be able to get away from town for the night, and want to find out the best (ie darkest) place to view the night sky from, you need to check out the International Dark-Sky Association and search their database. I’m lucky enough to live in Scotland, with plenty of open space and and the UK’s only Dark Sky Reserve, just a three hour drive from Edinburgh.
We got to the area around dusk and without much information to go on (despite two (here and here) dedicated websites!) we simply drove as deep into the park as we could before finding a spot with a good view and a place to bivvy. With a very generous application of horribly toxic insect repellent to deflect the swarming midgies it proved, as it usually does, to be a winning strategy.
We found a completely deserted spot by the side of a road that reminded me of the logging roads I often travel in Borneo. Our spot had pine forests to the back and a wide vista in front, overlooking a flat valley below us with mist pooling quite mysteriously, and low hills in the distance. A smattering of young pines in the foreground and hooting owls hidden in the night, and I’d say that by practised good fortune we’d found the perfect spot.
THE PERSEID METEOR SHOWER
The comet Swift-Tuttle traces a lonely 133 year elliptical orbit around the sun, travelling closer to the sun than Earth before flying out beyond Pluto and then back again, leaving behind it a trail of dust and debris known as the Perseid cloud. Every year, from mid-July to mid-August, the Earth rushes through this cloud of space dust whilst tracing it’s own orbit. We collide with those bits of comet at around 130,000 miles (kilometres) per hour, leaving trails of ionized gas that light up the night sky. By sheer chance the meteors appear to originate from the Perseus constellation, which is the origin of the Perseid name.
Seeing one of these meteors and knowing the history and physics of it all, even in the small way that I am able to comprehend it, makes me light up inside just like an ionized atmospheric gas trail. Even just knowing that the bright streaks of light that I’m looking at are created not by great lumps of rock tens of metres across violently burning up as they enter the atmosphere, but by little pebbles smaller than those you might use to throw skimmers across a lake. Tiny little things moving so fast they stir the heart as well as the sky.
Thank goodness for good excuses to sleep outside under the stars, to stare into the Milky Way and imagine if we’ll ever explore it, and to trace fireballs crossing the night sky and imagine what one of our ancient human ancestors, lying awake somewhere on the plains of Africa in the cool of an August night, would have thought, or felt, or maybe even said while watching the same thing thousands of years ago.
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