Be humble for you are made of earth. Be noble for you are made of stars. ~ Serbian proverb
Many amateur astronomers enjoy spending time under a clear sky. Some set up a telescope in their backyard, while others haul their gear to a darker site outside of town. For many years I did both, and still do, but now I have an observatory set in a very dark location. I built it so that I could view the night sky more comfortably and conveniently, and have a ready shelter when it is time to rest. Other than that, I did not expect the experience of observing to be much different than it was before.
It has been different. Owning a remote property with an observatory has enhanced my experience of both the sky and the earth, and has allowed me to see, hear, and feel the natural rhythms that I often take for granted when surrounded by the “stuff” of modern life. One reason for this is that having a shelter allows me to stay for multiple nights in reasonable comfort, and often I am there alone which helps me to quiet my mental chatter and engage my senses more readily. I suppose those who have remote cabins or favorite camping spots have a similar experience, but my hangout is unique in that it is designed for viewing the night sky, and so my most open and perceptive time is when others are usually asleep.
My observatory is about the size of a large garage. The roof literally rolls on rails, which is a remarkable concept for most people, but a well-known design to astronomers. I always feel a peculiar anticipation when I start the motor and watch the roof over my head roll away, exposing the night sky. I feel excitement and also a little trepidation, as my formerly secure building is now in a state of vulnerability. The juxtaposition of being under a sound roof one minute and then opening the roof to the night is both a physical and psychological transition; the sense of protection of being covered by the roof is relinquished and replaced by the expansive feeling of being in direct contact with our seemingly limitless universe.
I allow this feeling to gradually pass as I get down to the business of preparing my telescope. As my eyes adjust, I assess the conditions in a technical fashion: How transparent is the sky? Are the stars looking reasonably steady or twinkling noticeably? Is there wind? With the reference of many previous nights at my observatory, I have come to know my sky and can quickly gauge how far from ideal the conditions are that night.
Then I begin to find and observe the objects on my list. Some are familiar to me from previous sightings, but most are new to me, as the sky is a virtually unlimited treasure chest. I am alone with the universe and it feels as if I am the only person on our planet paying attention to the vast realm above. Galaxies containing billions of stars – some perhaps with planets – come into view, each with their own shape and some with unusual features that I note in my digital voice recorder. Nebulae, star clusters, and other intra-galactic objects also come into view. I see them all in the moment; I am not viewing a photograph in my easy chair, but experiencing the photons from afar in real time.
Although I use my eyes through the eyepiece, my other senses are also engaged. It is so quiet that I am in tune with the sounds of the night. Distant packs of coyotes often serenade me. One evening I listened to the call of an owl that continued for hours. Sometimes the distant sound of a motor vehicle reminds me that I am not the only human left on the planet. I feel the subtle changes in the breeze, and the gradually cooling air. Once I felt a sudden brush of air as a creature, possibly a bat, flew above me, pausing just long enough for me to look up in surprise before it continued on its way.
I often take time out from the rigorous observations through my telescope to simply gaze upwards and admire the grandeur of the night sky. There is nothing more beautiful to my eye than the sky at a dark location, where the intrusive glow of city lights is absent and the Milky Way extends vividly across the sky showing both shape and structure. I am connected in a personal way to all that exists in the vast cosmos. I can pick any of the original works of art in creation itself, and point my telescope to it.
Even though I have a plan for my observing sessions, I am often surprised by the unexpected. I have seen many meteors streaking across the sky. Some have been dazzling. Two bright meteors last summer were preceded by a bright flash, like the flash bulb of a camera, disorienting me for a moment. I was amazed by the brief and fiery violence, all in complete silence. As others sleep, I see celestial events happen in real time.
As the night progresses, I am aware of many changes. The dependability of the earth’s rotation moves the sky like a slideshow. Constellations move to the western sky and are replaced by new ones in the east. The air continues to cool, and I retreat into my warm room to put my hands in front of the heater. I am changing as well. Fatigue is pressing on me, in a tug of war with the celestial energy I am absorbing. It’s a sort of “astronomer’s high.” I am too tired to go on, but too connected and engrossed to stop.
Eventually I do stop, whether due to fatigue or the faint light of astronomical twilight, signaling the impending dawn. I cover the optics and turn everything off. Then I press the button to close the roof over my head, saying goodbye to the night.
Generally it takes some time for me to fall asleep and my sleep is usually fitful. I am still energized by the sky and all that I beheld. Also, I anticipate the dawn. Some astronomers are able to sleep late after such nights, but I am unable to do so. When the sun rises at my observatory, I sense it and awaken even though the blackout shades on my windows block almost all the light.
The sun is one of billions of stars in our galaxy, but it is our star, and when it rises it dominates the sky. The blue scattered light of the daytime sky suppresses my awareness of the vast depths, incalculable sizes, and imponderable persistence in time of our universe. The sun brings my attention back to planet earth, and I experience light, the warming air, and the stirring of creatures and insects. I sometimes open my observatory roof during the day, and when I do the feeling is different. I no longer experience contact with the vast reaches beyond our planet, as my attention is drawn to the local shroud of blue that is our atmosphere. The day brings me home from the long journey of the night.
When I ventured to build an observatory, my reasons seemed simple and easy to describe. I wanted a location with a dark sky where I could take full advantage of my optical instruments, and a shelter for comfort and convenience. I did not anticipate the deeper connections that arise from spending time there. Zephyr Ridge Observatory has not only enhanced my ability to observe the many distant jewels of our universe; it has enabled me to perceive the transitions in our daily cycle in a more direct way, to embody the expansive openness of the clear night sky and the reassuring return of daylight. And with this I am becoming a more genuine astronomer.