As night is slowly eaten from the developed world, so the black sky and the stars are more precious. This is a memory of an autumn night with friends, finding the wonder of the night sky near my old home, now crowded with lights streaming into the sky...
The night sky was being slowly eaten away. Each new open cut coal mine, each new power generator, each new shopping centre, diminished the sky; eaten away by thoughtless, careless money-making. As Muswellbrook’s sky was slowly washed out in milky light, I wondered how Sydney had escaped to come to the Upper Hunter.
There again, even Muswellbrook could not overwhelm the entire Hunter Valley!
Nights are a time to respond to the gift of a black sky. As the sun sets on new moon, and the evening drains the sky of gold, deepening from blue to indigo to black, my excitement grows. The time has come to escape the mindless television and competition between children, telephone demands and noise, noise, noise. The sky beckons, wordlessly….
Through several avenues - work, church and bushwalking, a friendship had arisen with an officer at Glenbawn dam, and the opportunity to use dark sites around the dam for astronomy. Away from lights, from noise, from intrusions by lovers looking for their own trysting spots, the loveliest place to reach to the stars was there; not only above, but from below, reflected from the dam waters on a still night. There I took friends, school students and scouts, anyone who wished to find the Hunter’s heart could join with me. Summers nights, of course, starred the Sky Hunter, Orion, raising his sword high in the sky; sunset though, was always too late during daylight saving to afford much time.
That was then, this was now. Early winter, cool nights descending to cold, and the first wood fires were being lit, as evidenced by spiralling smoke from chimneys as I waited at the dam gate in the dark.
A couple of cars raced by, no doubt wondering who the stranger was standing on the road verge. Perhaps he had broken down, or was waiting for a secret lover to arrive. If only they knew; for a lover was appearing, and a love story that had followed me all my life was awakening again.
A car rounded the Central Area bend, its engine labouring to climb the hill, and I knew that friends had arrived to share the night with me. They, at least, knew to switch to parking lights as they left the road, and were not surprised as I stood with eyes covered, protecting my early night sight from even the diminished light of the parkers and cabin light.
“Good night, eh?” came the rejoinder to my arm waving, ordering them to switch off the lights.
Quickly, we joined convoy, driving through the locked gates to climb up the Brushy Hill lookout. I had set up my telescope in the turning bay, away from the trees, looking for all the world like a cross between joined step ladders and a Civil War cannon. As everyone tumbled from the four wheel drive, I raised a hand to silence the chatter that comes all too easily. “Just listen,’ I whispered, and for a wonder, everyone did. Night had come truly; the still air held barely a breath stirred amongst the branches around us, and the chirruping of insects had died to almost complete silence. Absolute stillness; a rarity enough in the world, and becoming more and more difficult to find. Yet here, the only movement was the slow turning of the skywheel, the stars of winter rising over the ragged hills overlooking the dam.
Silence; then the quick crunch of feet crossing the gravel to the waiting telescope, and the sky opening above us. No white light was permitted from this point; only red covered torches were to be used, matching the Scone airport beacon to the north west. Orienting ourselves to the sky was easy; there the Southern Cross rose high in the southern sky, and the bright Milky Way passed through the Cross, only interrupted by the black Coal Sack. I pointed to the east; there the milky white glow widened, and we let out a collective sigh as the core of the galaxy stood above the hills, angled as it rose, covering nearly a quarter of the sky.
Jenny, at last, broke the silence.
“Could you imagine people who have never seen this?” she said softly, shaking her long hair. “Why are we so privileged?”
I turned back, watching the silent sky turning through the leaves and branches of a lone tree drooping over the track side.
“Because we are here,” I replied. “Because the sky is too lovely not to enjoy, not to become part of it.”
The others, not sure if words would shatter the spell which had taken us, stood silent. All of us, without speaking, looked up once again at the turning of the wheel above us, before settling to the observing schedule we had brought. Around us, the quiet rustling of the night foragers and hunters began, oblivious to us, to the sky above.