The event of the supermoon this past month was, I must admit, underwhelming. This is not entirely surprising, considering that widespread popular news tends to blow actual events way out of proportion by highlighting facts whose sole purpose is to raise your expectations unreasonably. Biggest Moon In 68 Years! Never Again!!* (*until 2034.) However, it cannot be denied that the moon was very bright and rather big and reddish at moonrise for almost a week, and where I live was lucky enough to have clear skies at the time.
Something I miss most about living in a rural area is the nighttime sky. Now that I’m surrounded by urban centers, all but a handful of the most prominent stars are allowed through the heavy light pollution, so when I do make it up north, I try to spend some time stargazing.
In winter this is easy because the sky gets dark there by around 4pm. I remember lying on the crusty top layer of snow in my back yard as a kid, staring up at the night sky. I can still feel the sharp air circulating through my nose and mouth and lungs and the chill of the air on my eyeballs with every hard blink. The surrounding woods make a frame around the northern sky, and the Big Dipper spins brightly within that frame throughout the year. The Dipper and Orion were – and are – like old friends, so easily recognizable even to a child, and so very bright when given the chance.
One of the drives between my house and church growing up brought you along a small ridge with an incredible view of the White Mountains. On really clear days you could even make out Mount Washington (especially identifiable if it had just snowed). But my favorite time to drive past that vista was at night. Sometimes in the winter we’d be driving back late from a church event, silently riding together in the car, maybe with Christmas music playing on the radio. I would press my forehead against the cold window so that I could see the huge, black expanse above me, unobscured by trees or streetlights, and scattered with thousands of visible stars. I say thousands – but how could I know? I would like to say a million, but I have no idea what a million of something looks like, so I compare those vivid pinpricks with the half dozen I can normally make out where I live today.
This past summer some friends and I went camping in New Hampshire and spent a long time lying on the beach. The sky was pitch black but for the stars, and we were completely alone, dwarfed by the sheer number of galaxies above us and grains of sand below.
Without looking up the science of it all, I always feel like I can see more stars when it’s cold out. I vaguely remember reading that the northern hemisphere faces more stars, or at least more bright stars, in the winter than it does in the summer. And I imagine there’s less interference from hot, hazy air, too. (I really am being very lazy by not verifying this for you. But you can do a bad google search just as well as I can.)
On the evening of the supermoon, my partner and I walked down to the water, to the end of a pier. The moon was bright and clear (just like most of the adjectives in this post) and cast a long, wavy reflection in the water, like a path across the bay’s surface. We identified Venus and Saturn.
A couple days later we went back again. The moon was still bright but waning at the top, as though it were looking down. Maybe it was the right time of year, or maybe the light pollution was less than usual, or maybe it was just cold, but we could see about a hundred stars – entire constellations – more than I had seen in months. And although I will always want more stars in my sky, it was wonderful to greet once again the Hunter and the Great Bear.