A sudden, stunning gift of starlight

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God...!

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Late evening in the Peters Hills. The sun has been swallowed by the Alaska Range, and only a thin, faint purplish glow now marks its passing. As day gives way to night, I stand on a northwest-facing ridge and search the landscape for lights. In the distance are a few scattered cabins and a mining camp, barely visible in the deepening dark. But no points of light.

Higher on this ridgeline, I could look east and see the Parks Highway, with its lights of cars and lodges. Turning south, I would see the faraway urban glow of Anchorage. But where I'm camped, the surrounding hills shield me from highway and city. Here, in the far western corner of Denali State Park, I've serendipitously chosen a site where artificial lights won't disturb my wilderness nights.

Above me, wispy clouds have moved in from the southwest, and no stars are visible as I crawl into my tent. Several hours later, I awake, feeling chilled; it's much colder than it was my first night in these hills. I add another layer of clothes, and then, sensing that the temperature drop reflects clearing skies, I open the tent door - and am greeted by the universe.

Never have I seen such an Alaskan sky. No moon, no aurora, no city glare. Thousands of brilliant stars sparkle in deep blackness. How to describe such an overpowering sight?

Lured skyward, I'm pulled from my drowsiness and out of the tent. Still in my sleeping bag - and no longer chilled - I lay my head on the frosted tundra and face the sky. So many stars. Such unfathomable distances. A taste of infinity.

In Anchorage, I seldom gaze for long at Alaska's night sky, except to watch sunset afterglows, northern lights, meteor showers, or, perhaps, a full moon hanging low over the mountains. Hidden by clouds and summer's late-night sun, or dimmed in winter by urban glare, the stars hold little allure. Not enough, certainly, to draw me out into the cold.

Tonight is different. I wander, almost dreamlike, among the Milky Way, the Big and Little Dippers, the Gemini twins and the seven sisters of the Pleiades. I wish I recognized more of the constellations. I want to know their ancient names, their legends, their origins. What is the story of Orion, the giant hunter? Or Taurus, the bull? So many stars fill the sky, that I have difficulty seeing shapes and forms. Perhaps if I'm patient, ancient patterns will reveal themselves.

As author and human ecologist Paul Shepard once explained it, "the spectacle of stars seems at first formless and chaotic. But it is far too large a part of the world to accept as randomly structured.... We discern or make there organic figures."

More than anything, humans have used animal forms to shape their universe and give it meaning. I like the idea of mythic creatures inhabiting the sky above this wilderness landscape. The constellation I know best is the Big Dipper. Yet it is part of a much grander figure, one I wasn't taught to recognize as a boy: Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

In "Secrets of the Night Sky," stargazer Bob Berman suggests: "It's odd, to say the least, that so many ancient civilizations discerned the shape of a bear in this region of the sky.... A bear is stretching it ... yet that is exactly what native Americans, ancient Greeks, the Germanic tribes of middle Europe, and others saw in this formation. Why such disparate civilizations should all project the same unlikely bruin onto these northern stars remains a mystery."

I like the fact that modern scientists can't figure out why several cultures, vastly separated by time or distance, identified the same Great Bear in the heavens. What could they see - or imagine - that we can't now?

The myths explaining the origins of Ursa Major vary greatly, yet many North American native groups say that the bear is "born" in the heavens and later becomes an envoy connecting the physical and spiritual worlds. It seems the perfect story for a magical night spent in grizzly country.

While most cultures have reveled in the images, stories, and meaning apparent in the night sky, ours has largely blocked it out with city lights and learned to ignore it. This seems a paradox, given our nation's great interest in space exploration.

While the masses watch "Star Trek" and "Star Wars," the heavens themselves have become the domain of astronomers, physicists, and other scientists who, with their high-tech instruments, probe and analyze the universe as they "figure out" its mysteries.

In the process, something has been lost, to me.

Here in Peters Hills, on a starry Alaskan night like no other I've known, I reconnect with the wonder I felt as a boy, while gazing at Connecticut skies. I shrink in size to a speck, yet I'm part of the glorious immensity that this extraordinary spectacle reveals. My imagination takes flight among faraway blazing suns and the power they reveal. Gradually, I realize it was no accident that I chose to camp here.

I have no idea how long I'm caught up in this reverie. When I finally check my watch, it's nearly 4 a.m. Already, the stars' brightness has begun to fade, and a pale glow lights the eastern horizon.

I drift back to sleep, my spirit cleansed by starlight.

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