Photo Credit: Artless Photos, Creative Commons
Please help take our movement to the next level by becoming a member of the Children & Nature Network. Your support will help children in the U.S. and around the world experience the wonder of nature and see the stars. — Richard Louv
A few years ago, Madhu Narayan, a Girl Scout leader in San Diego, told me this story: “In my first counseling job, with another organization, I took children with AIDS to the mountains who had never been out of their urban neighborhoods,” said Narayan. “One night, a nine-year-old woke me up. She had to go to the bathroom. We stepped outside the tent and she looked up. She gasped and grabbed my leg. She had never seen the stars before.
“That night, I saw the power of nature on a child. She was a changed person. From that moment on, she saw everything, even the camouflaged lizard that everyone else skipped by. She used her senses. She was awake.”
Ultimately, our relation to the sky is about wonder. Trevor Hancock, a professor at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy, asks this question:
“If we can’t see the stars, how will we know our place in the universe?”
These days, for children and adults, sky blindness is common. In the journal Environmental Health Perspectives researcher Ron Chepesiuk reports: “When a 1994 earthquake knocked out the power in Los Angeles, many anxious residents called local emergency centers to report seeing a strange ‘giant, silvery cloud’ in the dark sky. What they were really seeing — for the first time — was the Milky Way, long obliterated by the urban sky glow.”
Two-thirds of the U.S. population and more than one-half of the European population may have already lost the ability to see the Milky Way with the naked eye. When air pollution and urban domes of artificial light obscure our view of the night sky, our mental and physical health pay a price. Stars or no stars, natural darkness has value; our biological clocks count on it. Researchers in Israel have linked the amount of artificial nighttime light to higher rates of breast cancer.
Although some cities now require low-pressure sodium streetlights and other light-pollution controls, regulation alone won’t cure sky blindness, in daytime or night. What we need most is a perception of value: schools, sky-watcher groups, amateur meteorologists, and even technology can help. Star charts in our smartphones, for example. So can getting involved with groups that work for the sky. Three groups listed below, including the International Dark-Sky Association are dedicated to the protection of starry night skies.
“Part of my inspiration to protect the night are the memories I shared with my late father, such as watching the Geminids meteor shower over the Everglades, ” says Diana Umpierre, a member of the board of directors of IDA. “No child or parent should be denied that right. No child should be left without stars.”
If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where stars are easily seen, even a bedroom can be a portal to the cosmos. Window-based stargazing or cloudspotting can be especially valuable for children and adults with illnesses or disabilities that require them to stay indoors.
David Davis, a conservationist in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, has worked as a cartographer and a strategist for applied science organizations, offers some practical suggestions for stargazing in his excellent blog essay, A Dad Delivers Wilderness Nightly to His Kids —Here is How You Can Too. “You don’t need a telescope to get started. In fact, I’d advise against getting one for a while, ” he writes. “Young kids have a hard time focusing on objects using a telescope… A pair of binoculars can resolve lunar craters or reveal that Venus has phases, much like our Moon. If you already own these, then, by all means, use them, but there’s no need to dash out to spend on them.”
He expands on the following tips: It’s OK if the kids get distracted. Look at a sky chart beforehand and have a plan for what you’re going to look at. Start with an easy target: If you’re not sure what observe first, try the Moon. Choose a sky-watching spot where you can sit or lie down, preferably away from bright lights. Check the weather and bundle up. Make sure you’ll have clear skies. Minimize flashlight use and let eyes adjust to the dark for 15 minutes. Have hot drinks when you get back inside.
Here’s another suggestion. Leave town. Go camping, or on a clear night drive beyond the dome of urban light. Stargate.org and EarthSky.org offer schedules for upcoming media showers. One of my favorite memories is of driving east with my younger son, Matthew, to watch a massive meteor shower. Along a mountain road, we found a ditch and climbed down into it, and lay on our backs for an hour watching identified flying objects streak across the sky.
Perhaps, on a cold clear night during this holiday season, you’ll give your family the universe — and share it, too, with children who might otherwise never see the stars or know the wonder of nature.
Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and . His newest book, VITAMIN N, offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. Follow Rich Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv.
Other reading and resources:
Second Photo Credit: PhotosForClass, Creative Commons
A version of this column post appeared in 2012.