For a six year stint in my childhood, I lived in Santa Clarita; a suburban city forty-five minutes outside of Los Angeles. While it felt miles farther from the city, it fostered a quality of life that any suburban kid could relate to. When summer would roll around and we would head to Placerita Canyon for nature camp, the imported fuzzy tarantula and the towering water tank atop the steepest hike felt as legitimately nature as anything we had read about in our textbooks.
Despite existing so close to Los Angeles, the kids of Santa Clarita embraced the vibe of an isolated town. On the Fourth of July, we would pile into a pool or someone’s backyard and watch the Six Flags firework show light up the milky, hazed-over sky. My most remarkable memories in nature were made in Santa Clarita, and no moment under the stars has managed to top dipping Nilla wafers into vanilla frosting with my other nine-year-olds friends.
As we root ourselves in the towns and cities chosen by our parents and grandparents, the human experience that we undergo has shifted from that of our relatives. A memory that has stuck with my grandmother for 80 years, watching a shooting star with her dad on a porch swing in Ohio, is now unachievable to a resident of that same property just two generations later due to light pollution.
What could it have been about that moment that stuck with my grandmother for so many years? Perhaps it was the striking feeling of watching the universe in action around her; a grounding, powerful experience that has inspired centuries of philosophy, creativity and artistic expression.
Some people have copious memories of standing under the stars. Others have just one. The visual quality of the stars varies, but its resonance is consistently memorable. For the dean of my journalism school back in college, he remembers standing in the water at Lake Michigan. For my mom, it was watching the International Space Station cross the moon from Lucas Valley, California. For me, I remember jumping out to switch drivers while road tripping from Las Vegas to Phoenix. I remember a middle school camping trip to Death Valley where me and my four best friends dragged air mattresses from our tents to sleep under the starry sky. I remember the taste of Nilla wafers and the chill of the air on the I-10 while standing through my Subaru sunroof just last week.
It’s hard to quantify the impacts of a lost dark sky. The stars have risen as many times as the sun. What are we losing? It’s not vitamin D, but maybe it’s something deeper. The reckless usage of artificial light is changing a core part of our human experience. Astronomers wonder if the disappearance of the stars will cause a shift in human character. We’re raising a generation of children who aren’t reminded of the vastness of the universe every night, or of the mystery of the cosmos. When we walk outside and are instead greeted by the damaging skyglow of billboards and stadiums paid for by advertisers and corporations, it’s easy to stay wrapped up in the world around us: a world dominated by our work, social dynamics and the mundane complications of our modern lives.
Maybe you have a singular memory that takes you back to a quiet night under the bright stars. Some people I’ve talked to remember their interaction with the stars while driving at night, on vacation, or if you’re lucky, in the solitude of a space that feels like home. Modern virtual reality technology lets us capture the magic of that moment, down to recording the acoustics of the desert air or capturing the purple hue of the milky way with astrophotography. Light Trash, my 360/VR documentary which follows the work of dark sky activists, is content created for its emerging technology. While this experience will be shown in virtual reality, changing our outdoor lights from the white/blue bulbs to the amber ones (“low pressure sodium”) -- and shielding them to point down, and not out -- would immediately bring the stars back to where they belong: our backyards.