Mary Dawson with picture of Watoga’s night sky. K. Springer photo. Inset picture courtesy of J. Perez 

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

Dark skies over Watoga

The very first time I saw the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, it was from a distance of 12 miles and approximately 11 hours before I would start the climb to its summit. It rises straight up out of gentle pine-clad hills, an imposition on a terrain that eschews any ostentatiously vertical challenge to its otherwise rolling landscape.

I had pulled my truck off the graveled road that headed straight as an arrow to the basaltic monolith that I would get to know much more intimately upon the next daybreak. I was leaning against my vehicle focusing my binoculars on the great rock when a pickup pulled alongside and a middle-aged man in a Stetson asked, in a friendly way, if I was lost or broke down.

“Neither,” I said, “I am just a bit awestruck by its size.”

I did not mention the jitters I was feeling about climbing its dead-vertical face the next day.

He told me that he was a rancher in the area, and I commented something to the effect that it would be cool to be able to see such a beautiful landmark every day.

“Well, you would think so, wouldn’t you?” he replied. “But to be honest, I go years without really looking at it.”

That statement has stayed with me because I was to learn that his ambivalence is often the rule rather than the exception. We humans sometimes forget to see the beauty around us; it starts to blend in with the surroundings – but only if we allow it to.

Our own West Virginia Poet Laureate, Louise McNeill, never succumbed to the irresolute when it came to her beautiful surroundings here in Pocahontas County, particularly the total darkness of the night sky. She often speaks to the exceptional brilliance and multitude of the stars here in this part of the Appalachians.

Referring to the Aurora Borealis of 1941 in The Milkweed Ladies she recounts: “We ran out into the yard and looked up over us. The whole round of the heavens was beginning to quiver with a wild, flickering crown, at first from the north; then the east and south and west joined; and the green-red-blue-gold-purple spear tent was streaming up to the point of the heavens and riving as it came.

“As I stood there, a kind of awe and fear came to me, as though God had not yet unloosed his might. But he had it, held back somewhere in the banked fires of the Worlds.”

A recent study revealed that 80 percent of the population in the U.S. are unable to see the Milky Way at night due to light pollution. Most of us here in Pocahontas County have the good fortune of being able to share Louise McNeil’s joy of having a nearly unobstructed view of the nighttime heavens.

However, we should not take this for granted – light pollution is slowly but surely encroaching upon the few remaining “dark sky” regions, not only worldwide, but more particularly here in the eastern part of our country.

Pocahontas County is responding to this dilemma by taking the necessary steps to protect and preserve the dark skies for future generations.

Watoga State Park recently entered into the initial stages of a program administered through the International Dark-Sky Association that will have many potential benefits for our area. The Watoga State Park Foundation, in partnership with the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau, has begun the preliminary steps to getting the park designated as a Dark Sky Park.

Watoga Foundation board members Mary Dawson and Louanne Fatora are spearheading the effort to obtain the dark sky status for the park. They both reiterated that this project is still in the very early stages and that it may take up to two years to obtain the dark sky designation.

Meanwhile, preliminary measurements taken by local astronomers show that one of the major requirements seems to have been met – the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye. 

Louise McNeill could have told them that.

Additionally, measurements are required to be taken on a quarterly basis to determine if the visibility requirements exist year-round.

Also required for Dark Sky status is an inventory of light sources within the park, and, if necessary, they must be shielded. Interpretive programs for park visitors and the general public are required, which will complement the already excellent naturalist’s program at Watoga.

Benefits are numerous – an obvious one being the draw of amateur astronomers and their families to the park and to other parts of Pocahontas County.

Anyone who has observed the annual Perseids Meteor Shower from the Scenic Highway knows what a breathtaking display it provides. This will be a definite boon to tourism.

Less immediate benefits will include the preservation of another of the steadily decreasing number of locations that can justly be called Dark Sky areas. As education spreads about the alarming loss of these areas, sources of light pollution, such as towns, will be more likely to adopt plans that attenuate pollution, furthering the preservation effort. 

We have nothing to lose and much to gain in this project. It is hoped that the entire county will respond in a positive manner to preserving the things that those before us marveled at.

I cannot help but think that Louise McNeill, were she still living on her farm near Buckeye, would be overjoyed and supportive of the notion that we have a duty and the will to protect those things of creation that we hold dear.

I will close this edition of the Watoga Trail Report with one of McNeill’s poems from her book, Hill Daughter.

The night will come, though not the “sable” night,
Though not the dark, not the “wished for balm,” the still……
But deathly brightness, thermo-neutron night,
Until some star mad watcher on a hill,
Across galaxies will peer and cry
That where there was once nothing in the sky,
Now there is flame beyond the southward horn
A small, new planet, risen fully born
In one wild surge of green and glowing birth,
And looking at it, he will name it
EARTH.   

From the mountain trails of Watoga,
Ken Springer  
Ken49bon@gmail.com

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