Issue: December 2005
Lights Out

     There’s a nearly full moon tonight, a huge silver disk in a crystal clear sky that’s been cloud-covered for weeks, but still it’s not enough. I’m trapped in Annapolis Harbor for reasons that don’t matter. The point is-the problem is-there’s this moon that wants to pour itself all over me, the boat, the water, but there’s too much artificial light all around for that to happen. It makes me long for perfect darkness. It makes me wonder why we work so hard to negate the night sky, or worse, ignore it.

     One Wednesday night this summer Johnny and I headed to the harbor for the weekly Annapolis Yacht Club races. An incoming cold front was packing such a

wallop that they cancelled the races before we left the dock. So we stood in the doorway of the local pub and watched 50-knot winds pick up the rain, hurl it down the street and fling tree branches like lint. When it was over, we walked back to our powerboat and chugged out Spa Creek and up the Severn River.

     Except it was a Severn River I had never seen before. All the lights were out. All of them. The domineering glare of the Naval Academy and north Severn, the gaudy necklace of lights over the academy bridge, the trendily backlit mansions of Pendennis Mount to the northeast and Wardour to the southwest. Darkness.

     It was extraordinary, strange and wonderful. All that remained was the velvet silhouette of the land itself, a prone giant I’d never been able to see before. In its quiet repose, it transported me to some other time, before malls and parking lots and suburban street grids with all their lights overwhelmed the shape of the earth and even the stars.

     There are places where the night sky is sacred, where the alignment and wheeling of the constellations and planets is believed to be as integral to our perception of history and the landscape as the mountains and canyons and great open places.

     Myself, I will go to great lengths for the night sky. No matter how unruly the lawn or how many trees are growing from the gutters, I will gleefully abandon a weekend set aside for yard work to take the boat somewhere far from the city to watch the full moon travel across the sky. The Perseid meteor shower is on my cruising calendar; if only I could be well offshore then, the dome of sky merging seamlessly with the horizon, so I could watch Orion climb from the ocean. Short of that, a good spot on an Eastern Shore cove will work. Yet even there the yellowing loom of civilization intrudes, bleeding light that steals the necessary darkness.

     What disturbs me the most-what I realized on that beautifully dark Wednesday night-was how insidious this bleeding is. Like most things we need deeply and take most for granted, we don’t even realize what it is we have lost. If we’re lucky, a night will come-out on the ocean, maybe, or even here thanks to a ferocious cold front-when we’ll remember the night sky and what it is we should mourn.