T-minus ten, nine, eight… My son, not quite four, flat on his back beneath the kitchen table, is headed for the moon. Lacking a NASA-sized budget, this resourceful engineer must improvise. His command module is a foil-embellished cardboard box. His Saturn V is a 42-ounce Quaker Oats canister filled to the brim with imaginary rocket fuel. We’re a long way from Kennedy Space Center, but here in our Chicago kitchen Apollo 11 is go for launch.
Making due with a skeleton crew, he casts me as Mission Control—doubling, too, as the voices of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. His two-year-old sister stands in for the adoring American public, watching with amazement through a pair of plastic green binoculars. He takes for himself the role of Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, the subject of a favorite library book, The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon. While Armstrong and Aldrin are busy collecting rocks and making polite conversation with Nixon, there he’ll be, high above in the dark, heroically poised to fly them safely home. He’ll orbit solo for 28 hours, losing radio contact each time he reaches “the far side.” He’ll execute hundreds of manual commands without a single error. But before any of this can happen, he’ll have to escape the earth’s atmosphere. Three, two, one, liftoff! Some improvised rocket noise and my 36-inch astronaut is bound for the stars.
At bedtime my son and I curl up with a stack of illustrated biographies of astronauts and astronomers. They all begin with scenes of childhood stargazing. One favorite, Star Stuff, the story of Carl Sagan’s boyhood, features a dramatic fold-out illustration of the young visionary standing outside his New York City apartment on a starry night in 1939, arms spread wide, wishing himself to Mars.
Inspired, my son rushes out to the concrete deck behind our six-flat. We’re eye level with the blinding streetlamps illuminating the alley below. We see above us a constant stream of jets bound for O’Hare. Along Lake Shore Drive we hear sirens. The lonely moon is the only celestial object visible. We squint into the murky glare anyway, hoping to see some stars, a planet, anything, until:
“Mama, look! A shooting star.”
But it’s nothing but the blinking signal on a satellite. Disheartened, he shuffles back inside to finish our book. We learn that all of us are made from “star stuff,” cold comfort for a child who can’t detect the originals.
My son is not alone in his disappointed attempts at city stargazing. In The End of Night, an investigation into the ecological and cultural impacts of light pollution, Paul Bogard estimates eight out of ten children born in the United States today will never live in a place where they can see the Milky Way.
As I draw the blinds in my son’s bedroom against Chicago’s perpetual orange glow, I wonder how the absence of visual evidence that our universe is a vast and mysterious place will impact his developing worldview. In an urban environment, mankind’s existence can seem inevitable. To an individual regarding the stars, it seems the most unlikely miracle.
Where would we be if Galileo or Shakespeare had grown up in a world without celestial objects to ponder? The entire history of navigation and exploration, our very conception of time, our understanding of space, the development of astrophysics, philosophy and poetry are all results of mankind’s eternally fruitful conversation with the cosmos.
A half-forgotten line of poetry loops in my mind: “Gather the stars.” I find it in Smoke and Steel, Carl Sandburg’s 1921 portrait of a rapidly industrializing Midwest:
Gather the stars if you wish it so.
Gather the songs and keep them.
Gather the faces of women.
Gather for keeping years and years.
Loosen your hands, let go and say good-by.
Let the stars and songs go.
Let the faces and years go.
Loosen your hands and say good-by.
Have we as a human race done just this—gathered the stars and let them go—conquering even the immortal night?
Drawn deeper into Smoke and Steel I trace the origins of this end of night. It starts with the 24-hour industrial economy: “The day-gang hands it to the night-gang. The night-gang hands it back.” Then come the 24-hour services in the cities to support that industry: “Policeman in front of a bank 3 a.m. … lonely.” Soon 24-hour transportation arrives: “railroad trains at night.” And, because workdays in the city are long with the “12-hour day and the 7-day week,” the rest of human activity, including leisure, is pushed back further into those streetlight hours. That’s when the jazz musicians pick up their instruments, “drum crashes and cornet razzes,” and the vaudeville dancers “do a fast shimmy to the Livery Stable Blues.”
But the stars still shine over Sandberg’s Chicago; when they’re absent during “ten days of drizzle spread over the sky,” he finds it noteworthy. In Smoke and Steel, the poet references the stars over forty times. They stand for the natural order of things. They also stand for possibility, as in an intimate address to Sandburg’s young daughter in the poem “Baby Toes”: “There is a blue star, Janet / Fifteen years’ ride from us / If we ride a hundred miles an hour.” He asks her, “Shall we ride / To the blue star / Or to the white one?”
Ninety-four years later here in post-industrial Chicago, I take my son to a neighborhood playgroup and find the stars conspicuously absent from a much more famous bit of verse. Twinkle, twinkle, traffic light / Standing on the corner bright. It seems even the poetry of childhood must be updated to fit our new urban reality—our children can no longer relate to the old rhyme, now that the stars it praises have been erased from the sky. I can’t bring myself to sing along.
Like my children, I was born in the city. My father’s ancestors, European Jews fleeing persecution, sought the educational and economic opportunities of Chicago and New York. My paternal family prospered in the city for over a hundred years, then in 1988 my father surprised everyone when he moved his young family to a remote Wyoming cattle ranch.
My Western childhood was an experience of being completely absorbed by the landscape. There were hikes to secret waterfalls and picnics on the shores of glacial lakes. Each season had a unique smell, wind and light. Best of all, from our pristine mountain refuge we had an unobstructed view of the Milky Way, the sky awash in a sparkling silver glow, inviting our imaginations upward.
Though I cherished this unfettered access to the natural world, I longed for society and culture. When I grew up I fled back to the city. For a long time I felt ashamed the solace of life (as my father put it) “far from the maddening crowd” hadn’t been enough to satisfy my restless soul. Then, just as I made peace with my decision to settle in the city, I became a mother.
Growing up in Chicago, my children have access to the cultural amenities of a world-class city. But this cannot alter the fact that urban childhood is a life lived in built environments. Outdoor exploration is limited to the playground and the park. Even Lake Michigan, Chicago’s signature topographical feature, is hemmed in by eighteen miles of manmade shoreline. In this context, nature becomes another subject to study, something to read up on rather than to engage with or experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in my children’s choice of rainy-day destination: the Field Museum, a great stone building where vintage taxidermied zebras and giraffes are posed against faded backdrops—giving the impression that nature itself is, well, history.
When I compare my youth, spent galloping across grassy meadows as bald eagles soared overhead, to my children’s life in a cluttered Chicago condo, I’m flooded with guilt over all I’m denying them. Not just the stars, fresh air and wildlife, but the very experience of stepping outside every day into natural environment, an important reminder of just how dependent we are on the health of our planet.
Because of this I still struggle to quantify the advantages of city upbringing and measure them against the value of a country childhood. Life in the country keeps us in touch with the eternal—mountains, the seasons, the stars. City living offers something deliciously ephemeral—an ever-changing cityscape, the theater on opening night, concerts and festivals. Both have their advantages and limitations.
On his fourth birthday I take my would-be astronaut to the Adler Planetarium. We hand over our tickets and settle into air-conditioned comfort for a daytime peek at the night sky, conveniently projected onto a screen above our heads as well-amplified experts identify Orion’s belt with their laser pointers. This, we are told, is exactly how the stars over Chicago would look this time of year, if they were actually visible. The irony is lost on my son, who accepts this state of affairs with a shrug. It is not lost on the folks who run the Planetarium. Signs educate visitors about the negative impact of light pollution, complete with mock-ups of how our skyline might look against a starrier backdrop if we could just dim those lights.
Like most Chicagoans, I delight in seeing our downtown skyline sparkling at night. It is both city and symbol, evoking civic pride in locals and enticing visitors. Our shifting skyline contains the present and suggests the future. But what are those dazzling lights costing us?
According to some measurements Chicago is the brightest metropolis in the United States, possibly on the planet. Compared to other American cities, Chicago street lighting is remarkably dense—in part due to the way we aggressively light our system of alleys. Chicago’s streetlights emit close to 6.5 billion lumens a year, at an annual cost to the city of over $18 million. A conservative estimate of 30 percent inefficiency (some would put this number closer to 50 percent) means the city of Chicago wastes at least $5.4 million a year, translating to an additional 80,126 tons of carbon dioxide.
Reduction of energy costs is the goal of the recently proposed Chicago Smart Lighting Project, which aims to replace costly high-pressure sodium street lamps with cheaper LEDs. Yet, biologists caution that the quality of LED light is even more toxic to the ecosystem, with serious implications for horticulture and the food chain. Meanwhile, a complementary project, the Citywide Lighting Framework Plan, is soliciting design proposals to improve the visual impact of Chicago at night. In this case the city will require adherence to “Lights Out” guidelines developed by the Audubon Society, designed to reduce the death rates of migrating birds. Mayor Emanuel has said the goal of updating and enhancing city lighting is to make sure Chicago is “appropriately lit.” But who gets to determine what is appropriate?
When I contacted the Adler for an official position on these proposed changes in Chicago’s lighting they demurred, responding they “encourage the city to find the proper balance between lighting our beautiful city and skyline with the public’s desire to view and learn about our Universe.”
Of course, restoring even a modest amount of starlight to the city is pure fantasy—a best-case scenario of decreased urban sky-glow might mean an increase in starlight in nearby suburbs. While this might be nice, it is hardly a compelling enough reason to push for light reduction. The real reasons that cities like Chicago should be reconsidering their brightness are not aesthetic but ecological. The loss of stars is symptomatic of the more dangerous tradeoffs that come with the elimination of darkness. Bogard, author of The End of Night, sums up the problem: “Night’s natural darkness has always been invaluable for our health and the health of the natural world, and every living creative suffers from its loss.”
The more I consider the vast amounts of money and energy we pour into darkness prevention, the more I’m struck by the absurdity and inefficiency of it all. Isn’t blanketing our cities in perpetual light akin to building a giant tent to keep out rain and snow so people won’t have to bother with hats or umbrellas? Shouldn’t we be trying to harness technology to safely restore night to our cities instead of preventing it?
Back inside the Planetarium, the houselights come up on our 25 minutes of computer-enabled stargazing. My son is beaming. He takes me by the hand, and together we’re off to ride a virtual rocket through the solar system and drive a remote-controlled rover. But the coolest thing isn’t anything computer generated. It’s the original 1966 Gemini 12, no bigger than our family car, which Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell flew all the way to outer space and back.
“For real, mama?”
On tiptoe my son conducts his examination with great interest. Miserably cramped quarters for two grown men, this set-up looks just right to a four-year old, happily dreaming himself into the cockpit.
That night my son adorns his bedroom walls with glow-in-the-dark constellations. He doesn’t bother checking the sky. The Planetarium has satisfied his curiosity, but it has only made me more homesick. We have reached the limit of what our city has to offer; certain things can only be found in the country. I book a ticket home.
My father greets us at the airport—all pipe tobacco and cowboy boots—to take us to the land of mooing cows, barking dogs and the big green tractor. It’s been a long trip and the kids fall asleep before sundown. When darkness descends I turn off the lone porch light and step into the cloudless night. The sky is a glittering dome with everything nestled inside. The stars are still safe in their heavens; it is only our view that’s endangered.
Perhaps then I’d better heed Sandberg’s wisdom. Gather it all: the eternal stars and the ephemeral songs. Eventually we’ll have to let go, but in the meantime we can relish the keeping. It is in this liminal space that we find the substance of our humanity. Which most probably—like all things measurable and unmeasurable—is made of star stuff.
Usually I live by the maxim “never wake a sleeping child,” but tonight I have good reason. I tiptoe into the bedroom, slip my arms under my slumbering boy and carry him outside. His head rests on my left arm. His legs are hinged across my right. No sirens here, just the roar of the rushing river.
He rubs his sleepy eyes then opens them wide. It’s all there: Jupiter with its swirling storm, rusty Mars and the Milky Way besides. No digital projection. Just one little boy and billions upon billions of twinkling stars—his to gather for keeping.