Last week I found myself at a pastors’ retreat on Long Beach Island 1. I was excited because it was the first time in years that I’d be in a location which didn’t suffer from insane light pollution. I resolved to take some time at night, no matter the temperature, and head to beach for some astro photography. My photos didn’t turn out great, I was too impatient and didn’t get enough exposures with the same camera position, but the experience was amazing.
LBI is a barrier island on the Jersey Shore, and it’s winter population is minimal compared to the height of summer. At 8PM on Monday night I set off from Harvey Cedars Bible Conference and walked the few blocks to the beach. I didn’t encounter a single vehicle the entire walk. It was as quiet a moment as I’ve ever experienced. No planes flew over head, no voices rang out into the night from the vacant summer homes, there wasn’t even much wind. When I reached the top of the dune path the sound of the surf cradled my heart, and I was enveloped in glorious darkness. I haven’t seen stars like that for a long time.
It wasn’t like being in the Arizona Desert, or some of the areas designated to be free from light pollution which you find scattered across the county. If I turned back toward the mainland the glow in the sky washed everything out, and it wasn’t dark enough to see the Milky Way with the naked eye 2. But it was breathtaking nevertheless.
After I took my photos 3 I turned and headed back down to where we were staying. As I was turned back West toward the mainland, the sky was washed out by the light and seemed drab–it was almost oppressive. When electricity was being rolled out in cities the idea of “conquering the night” was touted as one of the big selling points. And, really, we did. We are able to treat night as day, all we need are the right kind of lights. But looking up at the during that walk back to my room, knowing how much beauty was up above right behind me, I couldn’t help if our conquest cost us more than we knew. On the dunes I felt a profound sense of awe and wonder, and recognized my own smallness. Looking up at the glowing haze toward the West made the world feel small.
Psalm 19:1 reads,
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork 4.
I appreciate the wonders of artificial light, I depend on it, but I wonder if maybe it’s also made us a bit less aware of transcendence–and less likely to wonder.