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Are the Stars Out Tonight?

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet...

Rudyard Kipling, “The Ballad of East and West”

How is the American West different from the

American East? As an insufferable Westie, I’m always on the lookout for books, statistics, surveys, anecdotes, history, quotations, and the like that go beyond simple identifications of West-East differences–that aim instead to show that the West is better than the East. Yes! Take, for example, the fact that the Eastern Conference of the National Basketball Association is a joke compared to the Western Conference, home to such perennial powerhouses as the Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets, and the San Antonio Spurs.

Advantage: West √

Or consider this: All the states where it’s legal to smoke pot without a doctor’s approval are in the West. [i]

Advantage: West √

Alas, not all such comparisons are quantifiable. One authority claims that comedians born in the East are funnier than their western counterparts. Another says that pets are happier in the West than they are in the East. There’s no way to dispute those claims. But there’s no way to confirm them, either.

Whatever the comparison, a measureable West-East disparity is likely to be an accident of a certain time, one almost certain to reverse itself at a future date. Sometime is the next decade or two, NBA champions will regularly hail from cities east of the Mississippi. And with Maine and Massachusetts about to go ganja, and a slew of Eastern states not far behind, pot will soon be available coast-to-coast.

Are there West-East disparities that are permanent and irreversible? A few. Here it gets interesting. Fortunately, having resided in the two competing sectors of the country for approximately equal lengths of time (56% West, 44% East), I’m well qualified to enumerate these irrevocable distinctions, and to describe their effects on their respective populations. Herewith, then, my major conclusions. I regret that they will not please readers living east of the Mississippi, but I feel that they must be stated.

Eternal Differences Between the American West and the American East

1. You can see farther in the West than you can see in the East. One-hundred-mile vistas are to be found just about everywhere in the West, but rarely in the East, and then only after having been half-heartedly announced on poorly written roadside markers erected by state departments of transportation. One-hundred-mile vistas are good for the body and good for the soul, providing Westerners with larger quotients of wonder, imagination, idle speculation, and raw goofiness than are available to citizens of the East.

2. The West is constructed at a higher altitude than the East, as heaven is constructed at a higher altitude than, say, Poughkeepsie. The tallest mountains in the United States are all found in the West. At an elevation of 6,684 feet, North Carolina’s puny Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi, reaches skyward less than one-third as far as Alaska’s Denali does. Not to rub it in, but 68 peaks in California’s Sierra Nevada and hundreds more in the other Western states are more than twice as tall as Mitchell. [ii] Another way of looking at it: Twenty-three eastern states have mean elevations less than 1000 feet; ten western states have mean elevations greater than 3000 feet. [iii] The consequences of these disparities are enormous. Greater altitudes give Westerners stronger lungs and higher aspirations than their Eastern counterparts. Moreover, they encourage the youth of the West to aim for loftier goals than those pursued by Eastern children.

3. Western states are bigger and emptier than Eastern states. Result: higher speed limits. You can do 80 on portions of Nevada’s fabled “Loneliest Road in America” without breaking the law. The same is true of certain roads in five other Western states, but none in the East. [iv] Greater speed limits allow one to reach essential destinations such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone in a jiffy, thereby putting one’s soul at ease far more rapidly than is possible in the East. There, simply getting out of town is often impossible. Here, not so much. I know a man who left the Bay Area early one Friday morning and drove 900 miles to Grand Teton National Park, arriving quite late that evening. He spent Saturday and Sunday climbing Mount Owen and drove home on Monday, exhausted but in excellent spirits.

* * *

All of which is prelude to Major Difference Number 4.

Below, a “night lights” view of the United States, a composite photo created from satellite images by Joshua Stevens and Miguel Román at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. [v]

“For my part I know nothing with any certainty,

but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”

--Vincent Van Gogh

When I started this blog half a year ago, I positioned a reproduction of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” above the opening sentence of my first post. In that report, I described a spell under which I fell when I was a teenager, one that endures to this day.

At the age of 14 or 15, I fell in love with the night sky. I learned the Moon, the stars, the planets, nebulae, and constellations. I read every astronomy book in the library of the small town in Pennsylvania where I lived. My greatest attachment to the heavens, it turned out, came not through scientific study, which I could have done on a small scale, but rather through the workings of wonder and beauty. I didn’t have a telescope so I did my observing with my bare eyes. Yet I could see the Andromeda Galaxy, faintly, and nearly be struck dumb from the knowledge that the small pencil of light that fell upon my eyes had been on the road for more than 2 million years, traveling at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. Proto-humans had scarcely climbed down from the trees when my light departed Andromeda! I could see that there were colors in the night sky, not just the silvery glow I had always imagined but yellow stars and orange ones, the Orion Nebula a misty glow of red and blue, the Pleiades, a 100-million-year-old cluster of 1,000 stars, mostly blue, known since antiquity.... I had the impression—more than an impression, an aisle seat on the spectacle of a universe being born, galaxy upon galaxy.... I learned of the intelligence that lurks in nonhuman nature, leaving me open to a world all alive, awake, and aware.

I’m fortunate to live in a spot in Nevada where, on a cloudless night, one can still wander out into one’s back yard and look up and see the entire show–bright, vast, lonely, stunning in its glory and its mystery. For the vast majority of humankind, such reveries are no longer possible. One estimate puts at 80 percent the portion of Americans who can no longer see the Milky Way; in many cities worldwide, the figure is 100 percent. [vi] Light pollution is said to be increasing at a rate of two percent per year. [vii]

I‘ve had fun in this post proclaiming superiority of the American West over the American East, and with some justification: with regard to the night sky, at least­, as the map above makes clear, the East doesn’t...well, it doesn’t hold a candle to the West. But ours is a hollow victory, and one that will surely diminish in importance with time. Light pollution caused by exterior and interior lighting, outdoor advertising, streetlights, illuminated offices, factories, and sports venues is increasing. Westerners covet those prizes no less than do Easterners. Both regions will suffer the consequences–increased energy consumption, disruption of wildlife migrations, disruption of climate, disruption of circadian rhythms, the latter an effect that in humans can lead to diabetes, obesity, mood disorders, sleep disorders, and certain cancers. [viii]

There’s a phenomenon called object impermanence that babies manifest during the first few months of their lives. A baby may delight in the look and the feel of a certain toy, but if the toy is taken away and can no longer be seen, the baby will cease to understand that it exists.

Will we infants in our tiny earthly nursery suffer something similar when the night sky is taken away from us? No longer able to see the stars, the nebulae and galaxies, the planets in their sure courses across the heavens, will we forget that they exist? Will we look up at night less and less as time passes, and when we do look up, will we see only featureless black?

Of course, we will have books and photos to tell us of the old days, but they will come more and more to be understood as today we understand the tales of King Arthur and Lord of the Rings--momentary entertainments to be enjoyed, but not believed. Is that our destiny, to travel the vastness alone, a solitary planet lost in the darkness of space?

* * *

On a moonless night, in a region of our planet that does not suffer from light pollution, the Andromeda Galaxy, some 2.5 million light years from Earth and home to some one trillion stars, can be seen with the naked eye.

* * *


Marijuana possession and use are legal in Maine and Massachusetts. However, the drug cannot yet be purchased in retail stores.








Photos: “Jump Ball,” source unknown; night lights map, NASA; Andromeda Galaxy, Bill Schoening and Vanessa Harvey, NASA

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