Two weeks ago, I was staring at an unbelievably star-studded sky. We were in the Peruvian Amazon, far from city lights, and had set up camp along the Alto Madre de Dios, one of the region’s mighty rivers. I wasn’t there to star gaze – my assignment was to report on the jungle tribe that has been emerging along this river – but it was impossible not to spend some time with the evening sky.
Previous trips to the planet’s rainforests have taken me into the trees at night, where leafy canopies obscure all but a few tantalizing patches of pinpricked sky. I’d always known something wonderful lurked above the palm fronds and ironwoods, but it wasn’t until this last trip that I finally got to see it.
On the riverbank, the naked southern sky stretched from one edge of my vision to another. There were few clouds, no trees overhead, and zero streetlamps to block the light that has been hurtling through space for thousands of years.
Instead, it was just me, snuggled into the sand, and a leaky ocean of twinkling stars.
For those who have never seen a truly dark sky, especially from south of the Equator, what a discovery awaits. Stars reveal their true colors (you’d be surprised by how many different hues they sparkle in!), incoming meteors regularly paint streaks across the sky, and the omnipresent disk of the Milky Way lords over everything in sight. The dark, dusty clouds that blot out light from the densest parts of our galaxy look like big, inky blotches dropped into a cosmic pool that’s just a smidge too far away to stir with a fingertip.
On these evenings in southern winter, the constellation Scorpius gleamed overhead, looking for all the world exactly like a scorpion, with the bright red supergiant Antares forming its beating heart. Next door was Sagittarius, the archer — and the constellation that dwarf planet Pluto is currently passing through. Alpha Centauri, the nearest stellar system to our own, shines brightly as the next port over, flanked by Beta Centauri and the jewel-like Southern Cross. I talked myself hoarse explaining as much as I could about how stars grow up and die, the supermassive black hole hiding behind those dusty cosmic clouds, the stories of the constellations and the different worlds we share our solar neighborhood with.
It’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
But the next time I go to Perú, what I’d like to do is sit beneath this twinkling canvas and listen to the stellar stories that have their roots in the jungle – the tales that have been passed down among the native Mastigenka or Yine, people for whom this nightly spectacle isn’t so much a spectacle as a normal evening panorama. Which heroes and monsters have these cultures, living in the forests all around me, placed in the sky? How do they explain the periodic reddening of the moon or the occasional daytime disappearance of the sun?
For millennia, the nighttime sky has been a tablet upon which we’ve inscribed our histories. It contains a richness that transcends those visible points of light, with multiple narratives layered atop the same glittering framework. Now, as cities and their lights continue to creep inexorably outward, and indigenous cultures continually come under siege, I think it’s more important than ever to fight for the sky and the very human treasures it holds.