Call of the Void

27 August 2015

Starry Night Over the Trees. Thibaut Démare (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Starry Night Over the Trees.

It was in the twilight of summer, when the trees begin to whisper of autumn. The wheat field outside my family’s house had been harvested a couple of days before, and the night sky was crystal clear. With blanket in hand, I trekked out to the middle of the field to look at the stars.

When you lie out in the middle of a field, all you see is stars. The tree line is at the edge of your peripheral vision, so if you keep your head still, it’s just a field of stars. At first you’ll notice the brightest stars, and then the recognition of constellations. You might notice a shooting star, or watch a satellite shine briefly across the sky. But if you’re still, and you keep watching the sky, changes happen.

After about half an hour, your eyes become dark adapted. Faint objects such as the Milky Way become more clear, and what seems like thousands of stars begins to seem like millions. The sky deepens beyond the stars, and you see smudges and ripples of light. There’s a range of color to the sky beyond light and dark. The brightest stars gain a sparkle you hadn’t noticed before. It is a brilliance and subtlety you hadn’t noticed before.

Within an hour you’ll begin to notice the stars have shifted. A bright star has drifted above your head, or a star off to the side now dances on the edge of your vision. Once aware of the motion, you can’t help but notice it. The eternal drift of the night sky. For me, that’s usually about the time when it occurs. I was about 13 the first time it happened to me. Lying in the middle of that field on a late summer night. The stars seemed to race toward me, though not a single star moved. It hit like a physical blow, and I gripped the soil to keep from falling into the sky.

It is a feeling both wondrous and terrifying. A realization that you are clinging to a rock in motion through the cosmos, and the feeling that the pull of the world might not be enough to hold you.