Night Sky Saturdays I: the milky way

Last year as we prepared for the lantern walk, a friend came across this essay about light and darkness by local writer Leslie Morgenson. It speaks to the heart of some of the reasons we do this. Over the next three Saturdays I’ll post excerpts.

Thanks to Leslie for being willing to share it. The entire essay, originally printed in the Good Work News from The Working Centre, is available here.

The early city founders of Waterloo, living as they were in the late 19th century, a time before modern electricity as we know it, proceeded to enact a measure known as “the moonlight schedule”. Gas lit street lamps were turned off during a full moon to make use of its reflected light to illuminate the city streets. At that time there would have been nothing unusual about this action. Until the 20th century, people everywhere lived in tune with the natural world. Indeed, according to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), “All civilizations through recorded history have constellations woven into their culture.” Did those early founders have any inkling when they drafted their ‘moonlight schedule’ that they were on the cusp of change that would mark them as the last generation for whom the darkness of the night landscape was as familiar as the day?

These people and their ancestors understood night as a time of respite when work ended and reflection began. Night offered privacy, and a time to be refreshed. In her book, Brilliant, Jane Brox recounts the beginnings of “insistent light” when citizens worldwide were not altogether happy with unnatural light flooding their streets. “Lantern Smashing” became a strategy used by citizens of Paris, France as an act of defiance toward their government.

But lighting arrived and though we were robbed of the night sky, the incandescent light bulb created a soft atmosphere making it pleasant for people to walk at night, casting an attractive broad beam down onto the streets. Today because of sodium vapour lighting with a stark glare shining upward, current generations are the first for whom many have not seen a star filled sky and may never see the Milky Way.

The closest we in the city came to experiencing the true night sky was August 14, 2003 during the Northeast Blackout, a massive power outage that affected 55 million people. There were bright spots, however, in what may have been viewed as a catastrophe. Neighbours emptied their fridges and freezer of food that would spoil and ate together in backyard gardens. Then we all ventured out. It was midnight and the streets were alive with giddy walkers, stopping to greet, barely able to see each other in the dark night, we had to rely on our voices to carry our good intentions. And from the city centre the Milky Way, for once, was clearly visible. It was a dark night of rare magic.

In 2014 Lantern Walk news, it looks quite positive that we’ll arrange with KW Hydro to turn off the neighbourhood streetlights for our walk. By chance, it’s a new moon on December 21. Though it will be the longest night of the year, with luck the Milky Way will join us on our way.


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