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Stars over the Northwoods Aug 22 08

If you want to really see the stars, you have to drive north.

In other parts of the country or even this state, that direction may change, but here in West Michigan it holds true. The ambient light from nearby towns and developments washes out the the deep, brilliant blackness of the night sky, concealing the ghostly magnificence of the Milky Way with man-made luminescence.

But north of Kent City and Cedar Springs, beyond the reach of city lights, an extravagance of stars crowds the sky, and you don’t have to travel terribly far to see them. You can’t know the difference until you see it. When you do, you can get lost in it.

How can the night be so multidimensional, or pitch blackness so filled with light? Suspended in the void, the constellations stand watch like shepherds of the stars. To the north, the Great Bear stalks the heavens beneath the Little Bear, who hangs by his tail from Polaris. To the east, vain Cassiopeia sits on her throne combing her hair as her husband, Cepheus, strides through the firmament with his starry crown. From horizon to horizon, the entire sky is lit with a crush of gleaming silver chips and braided with the faint radiance of the Milky Way.

This is the true night of Michigan’s great outdoors—the night of voyageurs and Indians, lumberjacks and hunters. This is the sky alight with Abraham’s promise. What was it like for that ancient desert wanderer to hear the voice of God calling him out of his tent, and to sense a mighty presence enfolding him, speaking to him of generations to come as he gazed up into an infinity of stars and possibilities? The constellations may have been different, but not the wonder and sublimity of the night sky.

Tuesday night, I found myself standing on a side road east of Grant in Newaygo County. The broad, flat expanse of the surrounding muck farms provided an unobstructed view of the August heavens. With a high pressure system presiding over the region, not a solitary cloud marred the starscape.

I had driven out here with my friend Barb, who lives nearby across from Half Moon Lake, with the intention of taking some sky photos. As a newcomer to photography, I’m learning the ins and outs of my Canon DSLR, moving beyond the automatic settings to explore RAW files and the fully automatic mode. Tripoding my camera, I took a series of time exposures. I captured the view to my south, to my north with Ursa Major, to my east where Cassiopeia sat poised atop a power line tower, and overhead.

My novice status as a photographer is all too apparent, I’m afraid. When I reviewed them on my computer at home, most of my photos proved to have been out of focus. That was a disappointment. But the overhead shot turned out well and gives a sense of the skyview; that’s the photo you see toward the top of this post. And even though it’s a bit fuzzy, I think the shot of the high tension tower framed by the constellation looks pretty cool.

Evocative, and beautiful, the starry sky calls to the child within us, inviting us to step outside and experience the black-and-silver marvel of the Michigan night.



Written by Dave.