Losing Sight of the Milky Way
Contribute Your Memories of the Milky Way
It is far beyond the reach of a huge proportion of the world to escape light and air pollution in order to witness a sliver of what the night sky once looked like. As these cosmic lights dim over our planet, we edge further and further away from witnessing the same emotive sky our ancestors saw. Through light and air pollution, we are slowly losing the reminders that we are on a rock, hurtling through a void, around a giant star which forms part of an incomprehensibly large galaxy. As we lose sight of this, we lose our cosmic perspective.
Having recently completed a self-directed residency at the Dark Sky Reserve in the Mackenzie Country in New Zealand, I was overwhelmed by the presence of the stars in the sky at night. I grew up under these starry Southern skies, and since moving from New Zealand at the age of 16 in 2002, have felt the lack of starlight in London as a tangible loss, and wondered how it has impacted the way we see our planet, and ourselves within the universe. It is of course, not only our perspective that is being challenged by light pollution. It is having a devastating impact on animals, birds and insects. We are inflicting an entirely new type of light and environment on these creatures that have lived by sunrise and sunset for millions of years.
How is our changing view of the Milky Way impacting the way that we see ourselves, within the universe? Are we losing sight of our evolutionary journey, and the miraculous events that have enabled us sight and sentience to view the dark, unfathomable universe? A view of the Milky Way is an increasingly rare sight for much of the developed world, and may soon become a relic of the past for future generations.
I am interested in collecting visual, audio and written memories of people’s view of the Milky Way. Your thoughts can be as long or short as you choose. Please include the location that you saw this view. Your submissions will inform a project I am working on called ‘Losing Sight of the Milky Way’ as a new member of the London Creative Network. I will post some submissions on my website.
I will keep you updated with the progress that I am making via the email address you submit. You can also post your submission if you would prefer:
St John on Bethnal Green
London E2 9PA
Or email a sound recording/ video/ image:
I grew up in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, a fairly large industrial town once renowned for its thriving textile industry. By the time I was growing up, its disused mills were dangerous and fascinating places to play, its stagnant millponds narcissistic mirrors for the sky.
While it’s a developed, populous town, it is hemmed in by the Pennines, the Peak District and encircled by moorland: all places where relatively dark skies can take purchase and spread like moss. Looking south towards Emley Moor, west towards Holme Moss and West Nab, and north to Stainland you could see where the neon lights surrendered to velvety black hinterland.
I would hike and cycle to these dark zones to better ingest the vast skies, tick off constellations, pinpoint famous stars, trace satellites, yearn for alien visitations, and try out the modest, portable telescope I got one Christmas. Behind it all, depending on the quality of the night and the time of year, the Milky Way flexed and danced, sometimes faint, sometimes distinct. Veiled.
I thought of it as the inverse of the Pennines: hills of stars and gases reflected upside down, groping towards us but unable to touch. Something like the sleeve to Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (a legendary recording made on the other side of the Pennines) or contour lines on the OS maps I used to plot my trips on.
But I didn’t always have to travel that far. In front of our semi-detached council house spread a huge unlit field that everyone called ‘the rec’ (short for ‘recreational area’, which is weirdly formal). This was the size of four or five football pitches and gobbled up light, being untroubled by manmade lighting of any kind. Walk into the middle of that space and lie on your back and your own personal planetarium would project itself onto the dome of the sky.
This is where I looked for Skylab and willed it to land on my hometown; where I longed for a beautiful mother ship to arrive and whisk me away; where my daily worries shrank to pinpricks and where imagination was allowed to propagate and expand. But the most bewitching thing of all was the disc, the strip, the ribbon, the river, the scar of the Milky Way: limit and frontier, edge and opening.
Eventually, artificial lighting did come to ‘the rec’. On my fourteenth birthday, in the middle of my party, the Yorkshire Ripper attacked one of our neighbours in front of our house, on the path at the foot of the vast unlit field. It was like a terrible constellation had come down from the sky and scorched the earth. Luckily she was one of the few victims who survived. After that we got better, safer lighting and the dark skies retreated a little further.
Location: Huddersfield and surrounding areas
What do you think will be lost by losing sight of the Milky Way?: A humble yet expansive sense of place; wonder; curiosity; reassurance.
How often do you see the Milky Way from your home town/ city / neighbourhood?: Never
Where do you usually live?: Inner-city London
Oliver Beardon of Sail Britain
This was taken from the deck of Alcuin, at anchor in the Treshnish Isles, a remote archipelago west of the Isle of Mull in September 2018. With no light pollution anywhere near, the sky was a deep blue and filled with a myriad of stars. I laid the camera on the deck, and as the yacht slowly swung on her anchor, they formed trails of the boats own movement with only the anchor light, our own star in the darkness, remaining steady.
Location: Treshnish Isles, Western Scotland
What do you think will be lost by losing sight of the Milky Way?: Our own sense of cosmic scale and the profound feelings of distance, but also togetherness which it instills. It's the original wonder at the beauty of the universe.
How often do you see the Milky Way from your home town/ city / neighbourhood?: Very infrequently
Where do you usually live?: London
This image is part of a cyanotype collection that I made earlier this year. Called "Night watch", it was created using a sun sensitive solution on canvas and then treated with salt to create the "starry" effect. I incorporated a negative of an old family photograph of my grandfather who was in the "Home Guard" purely because of the evocative silhouette but as the image emerged, over a period of about 20 minutes, I was taken by how much the impact resembled the night sky and a star constellation outlining the three figures. The idea of these men posted on Bournemouth beach during WW2 evoked a sense of protection. Ancestors across time and space. We all make up stories about the stars. This is mine.
I have never seen the Milky Way in the UK but glimpsed it once on a Balearic beach and the sense of insignificance it gave me was like a release and freedom from self. This image reminds me of that feeling.
The milky way from a helicopter pad on Heron, Island. I took a cultural heritage course during undergrad school which involved a 10 day tour around Australia and a few days in New Zealand. The small group of friends walked through the pitch black toward the lightest point on the island in the Pacific to catch a glimpse of the galaxy-upsidedown to our typical view in Illinois. What a privilege. The view reminded me of the glow worm caves! And ever sense this flowing undulating experience has carried through me. It brought me close to a friend forever, Tamara Fana, who would probably have great things to say about it as well! The image 2018, Over The Streambed A Body Formed From the Light Refracted in Waves, on the front page of my website gives this feeling of flow-that seeing the way out there creating from within, that I look for everywhere I go in the world now.
What do you think will be lost by losing sight of the Milky Way?: The sense of perspective we have had all these years. Loss always ties closely to grief for me. I would mourn.
NTNU is nearby, so maybe they will know-perhaps they can be interested-in collaborating with your project as well! It would be amazing to meet you!
How often do you see the Milky Way from your home town/ city / neighbourhood?: It is not often, oddly, that I do not see the galaxy way up in Norway. There is often low fog or cloud cover, so perhaps it's that. Otherwise Norway enjoys some very dark skies. The other more likely culprit, I need help in finding what I am looking for. My mind and eyes are often too buried in my laptop screen for work, I feel I am missing out on nature and the connection to it, more and more.
Where do you usually live?: Trondheim, Norway
1) Scotland, 2001. My then girlfriend (now wife) and I spent some days in a cottage close to Nairn. 2) Some years later, my son, aged 6, my father and I saw it, along with the International Space Station and several Perseid meteors in a rural area close to the town in which I grew up, in Lancashire. Both occasions were very affecting.
Location: 1) Nairnshire 2) Higherford, Lancashire
What do you think will be lost by losing sight of the Milky Way?: A profound embodied sense of our relationship with, and origin in, our galaxy.
How often do you see the Milky Way from your home town/ city / neighbourhood?: Not at all.
Where do you usually live?: London
I remember seeing it most clearly from my Dad’s boat, off of the north west coast of British Columbia, near Alaska.
Location: Pacific Ocean
What do you think will be lost by losing sight of the Milky Way?: Perspective. Intimacy with our galaxy.
How often do you see the Milky Way from your home town/ city / neighbourhood?: Most nights I can see it now.
Where do you usually live?: West coast of BC, North of Vancouver (little to no light pollution).
The first time I saw the heart of our galaxy was when I was 7. In those days, there wasn't a miniature Sun hovering over every farmyard and car park. That clear Lincolnshire night set me on a pathway leading to a degree in Planetary Science with Astrophysics, membership of learned societies and 30 years of public engagement in science. I've seen that pale band many times now, often from very dark locations such as northern Norway, but that first sighting is still in my memory.
Location: Ribble Valley, Lancashire
What do you think will be lost by losing sight of the Milky Way?: The opportunity to inspire future generations of astronomers, space engineers, explorers and naturalists. A basic connection with the natural order of the universe and the fragile existence of life within it.
How often do you see the Milky Way from your home town/ city / neighbourhood?: One to seven nights per week, depending on cloud cover and if shift work takes me too close to urban centres at night.
Where do you usually live?: Small, terraced mill town. Dark(ish) sky is 10 minutes drive away, really dark (limiting magnitude >6½) about 40 minutes.