It’s been 50 years since the historic year of 1968 came to a close, so I thought it was the appropriate time to revisit a topic that has been noted in previous columns and also in a contributed story in the White Bear Press last week.

When the stress and emotions of the season start to weigh heavy, I can still find simple pleasure in the various light displays decorating homes and yards as I drive across the area. Like interactive sculptures, the lights appear to move, flicker and twist as you roll past. Ranging from a single, small decorated tree glowing like a colorful gumdrop, to elaborate installations with thousands of lights, it appears that anyone with the spirit and desire can in some way participate in this seasonal expression of light.

Growing up in a rural area far enough away from the light of an urban center, I grew accustomed to the dense cluster of stars that appeared in the night sky. I remember one of the first things I would do when I came back home to visit my parents, after being away at school, would be to look up at the sky. The night sky in the city seemed muted and pale in comparison. I’m not suggesting that the seasonal enjoyment of Christmas lights is contributing to the loss of the night sky, I suspect urban sprawl and wasteful, sometimes unnecessary, lighting practices are more likely the culprits. 

According to an article on light pollution by Andrew Fraknot at pbs.org, during power outages in large population centers in southern California, officials answered 911 calls describing strange, glowing clouds hovering in the sky that turned out to be the Milky Way, a celestial phenomenon that an estimated 80 percent of the people alive today have never seen. I believe that the gradual and continued degradation of the night sky is among the influences of modern life that is subtly diminishing the scope of our imaginations and the ability to physically experience a connection to something infinitely beautiful and larger than ourselves.

As part of the 1968 exhibit currently at the Minnesota History Center, an actual size replica of a space capsule is on display in a section dedicated to the Apollo 8 mission that carried the first humans out of the earth’s orbit and around the moon. It was also the first time humans viewed their home planet in its entirety. It’s difficult to believe such an influential experience could have happened by accident, but while the astronauts concentrated on their primary mission of documenting the surface of the moon for future landings, a small, blueish smudge was first seen rising in the distance. Contrasting with the stark surface of the moon, the Earth was a beautiful oasis floating in the vastness of the universe. Astronaut Bill Anders is credited with taking the iconic Earthrise photograph of the scene and has been quoted saying that, “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” 

Although the moon landing garners more attention, some argue, for a variety of reasons, that this reconnaissance mission was the real breakthrough moment in history. In retrospect, the importance of what they were experiencing at the time appears to have resonated with the astronauts and 50 years ago on Christmas Eve in 1968, astronaut James Lovell inspired millions of people back on Earth as he quoted from the Book of Genesis while viewing our planet from the Apollo 8 spacecraft as it orbited the moon.

It took unbounded imagination and a huge amount of collaborative effort to achieve this historical feat and for a brief time, near the end of a tumultuous and violent year in our nation’s history, we were all collectively looking up.

 

Paul Dols is photojournalist/website editor for Press Publications. He can be reached at 651-407-1238 or photos@presspubs.com

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