NOT in Ireland

How a Pirated Photo of the Milky Way Became an Internet Meme

“Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
-W.B. Yeats, Irish Poet, Playwright & Activist, 1835- 1939
My God, it’s Full of Stars, by Thomas Zimmer Copyright Thomas Zimmer Photography

If you’ve sailed around cyberspace as much as I have, you’ll probably recognize this otherworldly image. The single figure silhouetted at the end of a stairway that seems to lead into a trail of stars has a dreamlike quality that evoked a sense of yearning in me the first time I saw it. I wondered first where it was, and whether I could go there. Next, I questioned whether it was a real place at all, or simply a Photoshopped fantasy, like so many images people share today without crediting the original source.

When I first fell in love with the photo on Pinterest I asked the source who the photographer was and where it was taken. Because I got no response, I forgot about it, until I discovered it again while doing photo research on Ireland. This time, it had a caption: “There’s a place in Ireland where every 2 years, the stars line up with this trail on June 10th-June 18th. It’s called the Heaven’s Trail.” The romantic in me thought, Of course, Ireland! It could almost illustrate the William Butler Yeats poem, Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Then I dug a little deeper. Where was this place exactly? And why would the stars only line up with this trail every two years, when the constellations follow a predictable, annual pattern? My research turned up a long discussion thread on a talk forum called Quite Interesting, where various astronomy and photography buffs analyzed (in great detail) the alignment of the stars and techniques that could have been used to create the image.

Finally, at the end of the discussion, a photographer named Thomas Zimmer claimed his photo. He explained how it had been downloaded without his permission, then shared without attribution, across the internet.

“Now I see my image everywhere floating around the internet with a wrong title, all this nonsense about this place in Ireland and so on. This makes me sad. I try to fight against this ongoing copyright violations, but it is a never ending story.”

In his blog post on 500px, “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” Zimmer tells the true tale of a chance every photographer dreams of: a moment when stars and opportunity align for a shot too beautiful to be believed, too captivating to be forgotten. As he explains it, it happened on a freezing night in November on Sylt, a German island on the North Sea. After shooting with no gloves from 4–8 p.m. his hands were so numb he could hardly move them.

Zimmer was exhausted, hungry and ready to go home. But when he packed up his camera equipment and started walking down the wooden stairway over the dunes to his car, he looked back to see a vision that he had to try capturing: the Milky Way, visible on this moonless night, “in all its glory,” perfectly aligned with the stairs. He thought the shot needed something more, so he tried lighting it with his flashlight. Then he decided it needed a human figure. He was all alone, so he set the self timer. Because the shutter opened as he was running with his flashlight on, the stairs are illuminated in the last shot of the series, which needed very little editing and very few Photoshop effects. More than two million hits attest to its power.

The final result is visual poetry that communicates the wordless awe we sometimes feel in the beauty of nature. You instinctively understand this when you see the photo.

But without Thomas Zimmer’s story, you would never know that this is a real place, in Germany, not Ireland. “Heaven’s Trail” does not exist, but the stairway in the dunes does. You could travel there to see it, but you could also find it anywhere else in the world, on any trail through the darkness. You might even find it someday, as Thomas Zimmer did, one clear, moonless night, when the Milky Way spins into view and you happen to look up and see it, perfectly aligned with reality.

Originally published on Gold Boat Journeys’ Ship’s Log (aka, the slog), on December 30, 2012, this post and the search term, heaven’s trail, still drive much of the site’s traffic.

EDITOR’S UPDATE: According to the 2012 PBS documentary, The City Dark, light pollution is now so prevalent that as many as 80% of the world’s people have never seen the Milky Way. Science illiteracy is one reason many people online may believe photos showing our galaxy must be hoaxes. Talented photographers like Thomas Zimmer help demonstrate the real wonders of our universe, and why we should all join the International Dark Sky Association’s fight against light pollution. Visit the IDA website for a list of dark sky places and parks with optimal stargazing opportunities, and stay posted for news about Gold Boat Journey’s upcoming Poetry & Stars Tour in Santiago and the Atacama Desert with Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night.