Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Central Pennsylvania
"Alabama in-between," snickered James Carville, "Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Alabama in-between."

Star-Gazing in Cherry Valley

Somebody with a lot of imagination has taken the darkest, highest, a most remote place on the East coast -- and made it into a pleasant entertainment for the whole family. That unknown somebody apparently realized that streetlights and other signs of civilization make it almost impossible for most people to see the starlit heavens above them. The process has been named light pollution, which sort of crept up on most of us in the past fifty years. I can easily remember the days when you could walk out of your front door almost any night and see the Big Dipper and on clear nights the Milky Way. If you were a Boy Scout, you could earn merit badges for the number of constellations you could recognize. For thousands of years, everybody could share the night with the nomads of the Far East, but slowly light pollution made it go away. Maybe you can see the North star once in a while, but hardly ever see the same sky which mariners and camel drivers see. There's not much to do when you are a shepherd tending your flocks by night, so the nomads named stars for ancient myths, observed the difference between stars and "wandering stars", or planets. Nowadays that's a real experience for most city dwellers, impacting children with the novelty, and the old folks with a sudden recollection of How It Used To Be. You can go to a planetarium of course, but you have to go to Cherry Valley, Pennsylvania, for the real thing.

The site is an old abandoned country airport, situated on top of one of the highest local hills, located as far away from a town as possible. In this case, Coudersport. The perimeter is planted with trees, to add to the darkness of the horizon. The area is actually divided into two astronomy centers, one for the general drive-in public and the other restricted to overnight campers who pitch their tents and gather in the log-cabin sanctuary. A number of the tents of these pros and semi-pros are designed to be small planetariums or observatories; it's quite an unusual thing to see. Astronomers seem to know other astronomers, and guitars are soon produced to sing country music around the fireplaces. The fact is, of course, that if you aren't one of the repeaters you will be more welcome across the road in the public drive-in observation area.

The rangers and local volunteers start their programs at 7 PM, with more serious programs after 9:30 PM, when it gets seriously dark. Perhaps the idea was to have an early program for small children, but where a crowd gathers, there will be speakers, and the earlier program mostly features the use of telescopes of professional size, where you stand in line to see what is being talked about. When the sun goes down, however, everything stops for the enjoyment of the sky turning black, and the astonishing stars coming out of every corner, right down to the tops of the trees. Most spectacular and a little later than the brighter stars is our own galaxy, the Milky Way is seen on edge and stretching over the arch of the sky. It must be admitted that, at almost all times, at least two man-made stars are rapidly crossing the sky; they are either airplanes or satellites. That's something we didn't have in my childhood, but it adds to the interest. There are about a hundred wooden benches placed advantageously to form an outdoor amphitheater. There was a sudden spurt of crowd interest following an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. If the crowds continue to grow, they will have to find more benches. A number of people brought their own lawn chairs, but at least so far that isn't needed.

As soon as the ranger starts talking, it becomes clear that another modern invention makes this outdoor planetarium possible. A speaker can hold a small flashlight and point a beam of laser light for several hundred feet. It doesn't reach to the stars of course, but it seems to and quite effectively allows the lecturer to point out individual stars and constellations as if it the pointer were touching them. The audience gets the idea immediately, and the effect is considerably more realistic than the artificial pointers of indoor planetaria. Now you can really get the idea of those constellations with Greek and Roman names. It turns out the American Indians had large star mythology, too, full of stories about bears chasing hunters and the like.

There are a couple of irreconcilable conflicts, here. It won't stay dark if a lot of light-polluting houses are built in the neighborhood, so the nearest gas station and the modern motel is about fifteen miles away. That's kind of tough on little kids who are well past bedtimes and even sort of a challenge for drivers doing night driving on winding country roads. The alternative is to camp out, preferably in the area designated for reg'lars. And don't forget the moon and weather. A new moon is best, full moon worst; rainstorms worst of all. There are a growing number of contests and gatherings of non-astronomical interest. In particular, there are annual lumberjack contests, cutting down big trees with hand axes, and the like. This was once a great lumbering region, and its traditions persist.

Originally published: Thursday, August 04, 2011; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019