Erica Wheeler: inspiring connections between people and place

January  2010 Guided By Starlight

January nbsp2010 Guided By Starlight
"We are Existent within knowledge of land,
We are Existent within knowledge of stars.

        ----Simon Ortiz, from the poem "Land and Stars, the Only Knowledge"

Astronomy is said to be the oldest science. For a long time people navigated their lives by the stars, oriented themselves in time and space. The stars told them when to plant or harvest and how to find their way when they were travelling. Of course they had no electric lights, so they could see a lot more stars. They had more time to just view them too.

Pondering this, I remembered a question I've always had: Why do stars always seem brighter in the winter? I found a really interesting answer at

In summer we're facing the center of the Milky Way galaxy, so we're actually seeing many, many more stars in summer than in winter. The hazy quality of the summer sky is really the combined light of billions of stars.

In winter, we're looking the opposite way, into the spiral arm of the galaxy in which our sun resides.  We're facing the outskirts of the galaxy, so we're seeing far fewer stars. With less competition, the stars we do see appear brighter! That's why the winter sky looks clearer and sharper than the summer sky.

To use the vernacular, how cool is that?

Learning this made me think about where I am right now in time and space. It oriented me not just as a little dot on the map but as a person on a planet looking sideways out into the galaxy to which I belong.  Knowing this "placed" me in the here and now in a new and unexpected way.

My Story
Whenever I return home after visiting my mother in the Washington, D.C., area, I become aware of how many more stars are visible out here in the country where we live. Each night before I enter the house, I pause, look up and say hello. I note which, if any, constellations I can see up above the trees. I silently thank the stars for being there and let them know I'm grateful for their presence.

Without them I could easily forget where I am. Where I REALLY am.  When I see the stars I feel connected to a mystery, a larger world far beyond my doorstep. As my neighbor Anne Yeoman so nicely put it the other day, "I'm better when I see the stars." Me too.

Listening to the Land
I consider stargazing to be one of the most powerful ways to reconnect with our sense of wonder. Stars are both explainable and unexplainable. To me they represent the certainty that life is larger than anything we humans can truly understand.  

I think we're missing something essential when we go too long without seeing a night full of stars. Think about all the creatures that are suffering because of light pollution. Many studies have shown the tragic effects of too many lights on migrating birds, sea turtles, insects and amphibians, and even on algae in lakes overlit by shoreside homes. If it's that disorienting for that much of nature, imagine what it does to us.

I admit to loving the glitter of a city all lit up at night. And by the fourth day of the ice storm last year, I really wanted the electricity back on. But that doesn't negate the fact that I am enraptured by the starry night sky. Starlight feeds my soul on another level. And the good news is that there are many ways to both have light and reduce light pollution. See resources below.

Try This
Gaze up: Take just a moment before you enter the house to gaze up at the stars. I find that just a moment (it's cold out there!) to say hello reconnects me with their magic and wonder.  

Get beyond the glare: Take a walk or drive out beyond the glare of the lights and see how many stars are there each night—far more than you normally see.  Remember that in the middle of your busy life: there are billions of stars up there!

Visit a planetarium: This is a really fun way to learn more and experience a connection with the stars, all while feeling warm and comfortable.

Your story
Did you take a few moments this week just to "be" with the stars? Did it shift how you felt about your "here and now"? Did it bring up any thoughts or feelings? What are they?

Let me know what you find! Post a comment below

Stars of the First People:Native American Star Myths and Constellations, by Dorcas S. Miller, Pruett Publishing, 1977  This book is packed with great interpretations of the night sky. Works to reduce light pollution.  Has practical ways to change home lighting to reduce light pollution.

updated: 7 years ago