The Night Sky
Memories of a rural Alaskan youth
I grew up in rural Alaska. Winters were rough—not a lot to do, very dark and depressing. I spent a lot of time just staring at the stars. Up there, far away from civilization, the light of the stars cuts through the cold, dark sky and opens up the entire universe. I was a young boy with big ambitions, few friends, and lots of science fiction books. The stars were at the same time my gateway to a better world and a sublime reminder of the grandeur of nature.
One winter was particularly cold and clear. I took to sleeping outside so I could watch the stars all night. I’d put on my pajamas, put on a winter coat and snow pants, lay a sleeping bag on top of the hard crusty snow, and stare up at the sky until I fell asleep. One night I woke up in the middle of the night to the northern lights leaping above my head. They would form patterns I could just see, then fade away.
Another night, this one spent indoors, I had a dream that when I was in my yard looking up, I saw not just the stars but also galaxies, comets, and nebulae. The sky was alive with pinwheels and stellar nurseries. On waking, I remember the disappointment that the sky didn’t look like that. Even if I could see galaxies and nebulae they’d be but other tiny points amongst the stars.
I came across an image on reddit’s Astronomy forum recently. It’s a picture of what several astronomical objects would look like if they weren’t too faint to be seen.
I haven’t thought of my dream in a long time, but this image brought it all back. It’s a jolt for me that, by accident, my dream was right. This image is exactly what I saw in my mind’s eye that night. It’s a powerful reminder of what exists just beyond our perceptions. When we stare into the abyss, the abyss indeed stares back at us, but what we see as an abyss is alive with living and dying stars, with planets and galaxies and even other life.
While we will one day fade away, the universe will continue on. Like the young boy I was, humanity is but a small speck in a backwoods area of a vast, empty landscape. But also like him, we’re a part of something much larger. We exist, and in existing experience the world around us, the world that we are a part of.