A night sky free of light pollution is important because it inspires people to tell stories. For almost all of human history, humankind has passed on knowledge by word-of-mouth, and stories became a way to remember things about the world.
During the long nights of winter, before there were electric lights or television or computers, people would sit by a fire and share their stories. In the United States people didn’t have electric lights until Thomas Edison made his invention in 1879.Shared stories included almost all of the knowledge of a group of people when most didn’t read or have access to written materials. Because people could see the night sky during the times they were telling stories, when they could see a certain constellation they might say, “That constellation reminds me of a story.”
For example, the Kiowa and Lakota tribes have a story about the rock formation that we now call Devils Tower in Wyoming. Native American names for the monolith include “Bear’s House” or “Bear’s Lodge” or “Bear’s Tipi.” According to the Lakota story, a group of girls went out to play and were spotted by several giant bears which began to chase them. In an effort to escape the bears, the girls climbed atop a rock, fell to their knees, and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit made the rock rise from the ground towards the heavens so that the bears couldn’t reach the girls. The bears, in an effort to climb the rock, left deep claw marks in the sides, which had become too steep to climb. When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the stars of the Pleiades.
Devils Tower rises 867 feet from base to summit and its sides have markings resembling bear claw scratches.
Today geologists tell us a different story about how Devils Tower was formed. Doing a quick search in Wikipedia, I discovered that in technical terms, Devils Tower is a “ laccolithic butte composed of igneous rock, and that laccoliths are typically formed by viscous magmas that cool slowly, giving time for large crystals to form.” The Lakota story has a practical application because it lets you remember that Devils Tower has many vertical joints and cracks in the rocks. If you tell the Lakota story to someone, he or she will recognize Devils Tower when they see it. If you tell the modern geologist’s story, you’ll likely get a blank stare.
And the Lakota story reminds people to pay attention to the constellations because when the Pleiades appear in the early dawns of mid-June, Native American farmers knew that the last of the seeds should be planted immediately or the crops wouldn’t mature before the autumn’s first killing frost. Knowing when to plant crops was a serious matter; the group’s survival depended on it.
When the ancients saw the night sky, they were reminded of stories, and those stories contained information that explained their traditions and collective knowledge. Every civilization had stories about the constellations; most of the modern names for constellations have Greek story origins. But Native Americans had their own stories, as did the northern Europeans, and Pacific Islanders.
If we lose touch with the night sky, we slowly lose touch with ourselves.
“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” — Vincent van Gogh
For more information about dark skies in Idaho:
The International Dark-Sky Association recently gave Craters of the Moon National Monument its silver tier park designation.
McCall Clear Sky Chart for astronomers,
The City of McCall passed a Dark Sky ordinance in 2006, regulating outdoor lighting within the city.