I’ve got to tell you that I’m enjoying my new birdwatching binoculars. I really don’t know much at all about birds except that they’re fun to watch — and addictive. I’m even getting in the habit of hiking with the bird glasses around my neck. They’re not too heavy, and if something feathered happens by, then it’s then easy to get a good look at it.
But I don’t think I told you that they weren’t the only optics I received last Christmas. As it happened, my daughter gifted me a set of astronomical binoculars too.
Astronomical binoculars, as you might deduce from the name, are designed for looking at space (as in “outer”). Compared to my little birding glasses, they’re big and impressive. I guess they have to be. Space is a long ways away — a lot farther than your average bird — and something special is surely required to appreciate it properly.
Yes, optics-wise, I’m set. If you know of something that needs to be observed, be it bird or nebula, then I’m the guy to call.
Anyway, along with the space binoculars (I’ve started calling them “space” binoculars to distinguish them from the other set, which I call the “bird” binoculars), I also received a guide to using binoculars to look at the heavens. The book assured me that through my new set of optics I’d see things I’d never seen before.
Is that true?
I remember the first time I took them out on the little deck behind the kitchen. I made sure I had the strap around my neck (those suckers are heavy!) and then pulled off the lens covers and settled back in a chair and pointed them skyward.
Wow. Just wow.
The space binoculars gather a lot of light, concentrating it and squeezing it before pouring it out the eyepiece and into my eager eyes, and what that light revealed was lots and lots and lots of stars.
So many stars! Who would have thought?
I hadn’t seen that many stars in a long, long time. Living where I do, stray light from cars and fast-food restaurants and malls tends to overwhelm some of the less-bright objects in the sky. I have learned that astronomy types call this “light pollution.” It makes fainter celestial objects disappear into the diffuse glare of suburbia, and space becomes less interesting.
But what if I could make that glare go away?
As it turns out, the astronomy world has a name for places with no glare too. It calls them “dark sky sites.” The interweb tells me that there are a good many of them, usually in exotic locales like Albanya (in Spain) or Warrumbungle National Park in Australia. Closer to home, the Grand Canyon National Park is one of many which makes the list. So, appropriately enough, does Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. That’s closer than Australia, but it’s still too far to go and be back in time for breakfast.
What I needed was a dark sky closer to my front door. Could I find one? I decided to try.
And so, the other evening, I put a warm jacket on my body and the space binoculars around my neck and set out for the wilds of Wills Park.
Wills Park is just across the street from where I live and a lot closer than Spain or Australia. I reasoned that at 11 p.m. it ought to be about as close as I was gonna get to a within-walking-distance dark sky. So I grabbed my folding chair (the same one I use to watch the fireworks every Fourth of July) and off I went.
Setting up the chair, I settled back and uncapped the lenses and put the eyepieces to my eyes and turned my gaze to the stars.
Again: Wow. Just wow. So many stars…so many stars…
One of these days I hope I’ll learn enough about the spacescape above me to know what I was seeing, but for now I’ll just be content with the grandeur of it all.
If you’ve never enjoyed the outdoors in the middle of the night, with a set of binoculars in your hands and your eyes turned to the sky, you’ve missed something profound. Even birding binoculars will do.
It’s outdoor recreation of a wholly different kind, and all you need to experience it is those glasses and a clear sky and a comfortable folding chair.
The stars do all the rest.