Starscape

My father taught me it was called “light pollution” — the glow that surrounds Bemidji at night. You can see it for miles away. It’s a natural byproduct of cities; lampposts and neon signs, localized populations and businesses simply require more light. Bemidji’s haze is nothing compared to St. Paul’s, and Worthington may have a little glow, too.
Despite the brightness, I could always see the major constellations — Orion, Andromeda, the Big Dipper (or Great Bear) — from my backyard. As a kid I loved the constellation stories. I eagerly absorbed the Greek myths and memorized Native American legends.
Constellations felt like puzzles, scavenger hunts worked into the outer surface of our planet. We connect the dots and tell the stories, passing on some ancient tradition. It felt like being an insider, knowing a secret. I don’t think it occurred to me for quite awhile that I might not know the whole of it.
My family takes an annual camping trip to Clubhouse Lake, a trip I had to miss this year for work. The campground lacks basic amenities. We pump water and haul it to our campsite, and the only available toilets are outhouses. If you want electricity, you have to provide it yourself. We do all the normal camping things — swim, cook, fish, sing songs around a campfire. But sometimes, after campground quiet hours force us to stow the guitar, a few of us walk down to the lake.
We feel our way along the lake paths, whispering and tripping over each other. We bring flashlights but don’t turn them on. The tree canopy opens up when we reach the beach, and if there’s no moon, we can see the sky.
From my backyard, all I could see were the brightest stars, the ones able to compete with the glare of city lights. At Clubhouse, the outer rim of the Minnesota wilderness, the dimmer ones are visible. The sky is not a black curtain with scattered pinpricks, identifiable, classed into textbooks. It’s an untidy mess, stars bumping into each other, interrupting the approved constellations, overlapping, spilled carelessly upward and outward from treeline to treeline.
I remember the first time I saw the sky open up like that — the constellations I knew still recognizable, but suddenly less significant.
I’ve never felt so small.

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