Night Skies

Stars over the town of Berthoud at night

Over the last year or so, I have been grasped by an overwhelming urge to see the stars.

Not just any stars. Not the stars you see in the city at night. Nor the ones glimpsed while driving down the highway late after work. I’m not interested in stars you see while fumbling for house keys on a dark patio, or ones spotted while laying on a blanket on a muggy summer night. All those stars, they’re dimmed by too much competition.

I want to see the stars that sing to you. The stars in the middle of nowhere. The stars as they were meant to be. Alone. At night. Unaccompanied by city lights, porch lights, car lights, or any lights. And I want to see them all the time. Provided the sun is not out, I want to be able to see stars.

My younger brother, my opposite in so many ways, frequently refers to me as a Luddite. The term originated in 19th century England to describe textile workers who destroyed the new-fangled weaving machines they feared would put them out of jobs. Over time, its use has expanded to describe anyone who opposes new technologies.

My brother is not terribly far off. I do not inherently oppose technology. But I do question it’s omnipresent and all-consuming role in our lives. Plus, the Luddites were right. Those machines did put them out of a job.

I, on the other hand, am more worried about technology putting me out of a soul.

The last few years on our small farm have changed me in small ways that nonetheless feel jarring. We spend the vast majority of our free time (time not spent working our day jobs) outside doing chores: planting, weeding, digging, harvesting, washing, shoveling. When it rains  or snows, I’m usually inside putting up the food we’ve harvested by canning, jamming, drying, or freezing. When we need a break, we head down to the local brewery, still in muddy jeans and dirty hats, grab a beer and a quick burrito then head back to whatever’s next. The tunnel vision, the time outside, the reality that this is not how most people spend their day, doesn’t really set in until we have to do something that is uncharacteristic for us. The last time we set foot in a department store looking for a dress shirt, a single, lone dress shirt for Mike, he looked at me and said, “It smells funny in here. It smells like a store.”

“It’s the clothes off-gassing,” I responded, without even thinking.

At some point, I had become baffled by the fluorescent lights of stores, the garish displays of everything from jewelry to socks. The perfume-y smells of colognes and scented candles now seem overwhelming and chemically-tinged.

I’ve learned to distinguish the difference in smell between a slicing tomato plant and a cherry tomato plant. I would, in all honesty, take the smell of the chicken coop in all its ammonia-scented glory over that department store, cologne-infused mix, or even (dare I admit it) the much-lauded new car smell.

Which, at times, creates a discord I have not yet come to terms with. We do not live an isolated life. Nor, for that matter, do we live in an isolated area. We have a little bit of space, but we’re a short drive from three significant cities and suburbia is popping up all around us. Even just down the road.

In other words, we live a slightly unusual lifestyle in a very usual place.

We grow our own food. Then post pictures of how we do it on social media.

We heat the house with wood fire. Our insert has the technology to keep the exhaust clean enough to burn on bad-air days.

We make our own compost. Then use high-end soil tests to make sure we’re amending our plots correctly.

No, I do not inherently oppose technology.

But it does not ground me. The earth grounds me. The soil, the dirt, and the stars.

In this precarious balance of modernity and old-fashioned ways that we keep, I am, of late, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the modernity. I can spend my days in nature, but I cannot escape the noise of civilization. I can choose to opt out of screen time, but I cannot avoid the masses in public staring at their phones. I can take a shovel and rake out to the yard and get my hands in the earth and my feet on the ground, but I cannot stop the constant whiz of traffic down the county road, or the neighbor’s radio from blaring.

I can turn off all our lights, step outside and stare at the sky. It’s not too shabby, right on our property.

But the light dome of all the nearby towns is ever-encroaching. I can see it creeping into the dark. I can feel it creeping into my soul.

So I need to see the stars. And not just for a long weekend. I need to be able to access the stars at will, like I access dirt and plants and weeds and compost. I need the stars to keep me grounded. I need them to keep me sane.

So it becomes a question of sacrifice. How much do I want the comforts of civilization close by? And at what cost to my soul are those comforts worth it? All the craft breweries, the cute wine bars, the small concert venues that bring our favorite folk artists, the warmth of friends’ kitchens an easy walk down the road. We have an address where UPS delivers. Access to high-speed internet. Wifi. Reliable cell phone service.

I’m not so Luddite that I shun these things.

But how do they compare to the beauty of silence? The soothing presence of uninterrupted darkness? The ability to walk out the back door at night with a wool hat, a warm jacket, and a cold wind whipping across the landscape and see the stars as the universe intended?

It’s an uncomfortable place to be, sitting on this fence, leaning Luddite with creature comforts.

Perhaps one day, I’ll tip one way or the other landing firmly on the side where the grass is actually greener. Or where the stars are actually brighter.

But for now, I’ll do my best to maintain the delicate balance. Of being grounded, while being electronically connected. Of being social while seeking solitude. Of using technology to further my goal to living simply. Living softly. Living with my soul in the stars.

A big shout out to Emily Taylor of Emily Sierra Photography for the photo of  Berthoud at night during a power outage. You know you’ve landed in the right tribe when you have people who know the value long hikes, quiet nights, and…stars. So many stars.

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