Once upon a time, there were stars.
Fields of stars. Realms of them. Galaxies. Worlds—and we could see them.
Once upon a time the stars we saw were not merely the delight of the eye, the wonder to the heart, or the proof of the existence of God. When the day’s compass retired below the hazy horizon, and all was cold and dark, the stars marked the ways. The stars were the hope.
There are no stars now. The fumes have enshrouded them. The fumes from those belching fossil-fuel power plants that have been belching decades now, and, as long as it’s profitable for the government, that will obligingly belch for the decades to come.
As we zoom past those smokestacks, belching assiduously, incessantly, I am repulsed. Then I wonder.
Do they not realize, those businessmen in their palaces and mansions, what it means to lose the stars? The bejeweled field of heaven is the smallest, yet the greatest, thing they can ever lose. Small, for so far away and of no market value. Great, for they are the ancient promise of health and comfort—of life itself—further along the right path.
But the big men don’t care for ancient anymore—it’s all the newest innovation, the newest technology, this advancement here and this development there. What held us together no longer matters; what holds us now is a complex net of business transactions and convenience.
“We do not interact commercially with posterity. So what if our great-grandchildren breathe in polluted air? So what if fifty years hence, every other young child contracts asthma and every other venerable elder buckles under lung cancer? We live in and answer for the present only: let their respective generations attend to the past and the future.”
I expect it is easy to forget; comfort and contentment are anesthetics to worry. The window is open as the jeep courses down the highway, and my hair like a banner behind me sails. Though the smokestacks have not passed from sight, the cool rushing wind is anything but unrefreshing. For a long instant, I ignore that I ride in a machine that coughs copious carbon, a mobile smokestack itself, and let the speed invigorate me.
The sun and the crescent sink: we are racing to meet them at the rim of the earth. We are almost there.
We are thirty miles and more from any civilization. Nothing has changed perhaps for centuries. Westward stretches dune upon dune beyond dune like golden waves frozen in time. The sunset crowns each breaker with fiery foam that blinds the eye.
Shouldering the disassembled tent, the water, the telescope, and all paraphernalia that we did not believe we could stand a night without, we sink our feet in the chilly sand, tread the ancient way.
The tent is mounted and campfire lit. I watch the smoke billow and curl higher and higher, till it merges with the darkness of the evening above. I wonder if the elders who cleave to those old, old ways instar the sky nightly with their tears; I wonder how long until even those remote haunts of theirs are choked with the carbon fumes. Then those tears all shall fall, caustic, undrinkable; and posterity will weep in its turn; but now, what do those profiteers care?
My father has mounted the telescope. By now the crescent has slipped beneath sight, and my eyes are wide, straining, seeking.
“What’s the matter?” He leaves the microscope, seeing the shine in my eyes.
“Look,” I whisper, and point.
The North Star.
“What about it?”
“I—I can see it.”
“I know, right? You can see it better through the lens. Hold on, let me focus it.”
I don’t need a lens. That single naked star is the most beautiful and fateful thing of all the carbon-choked earth. Polaris always led the stars, the hope.
I reach a hand forward, as though my fingers, so small suddenly against the background of the endless heavens, could seize the hope, preserve it, in their feeble grasp. But reconsidering, I lower my hand. One by one, the celestial lamplighter is kindling them: the other stars blink and shimmer forth, some bashfully and some boldly, all beautifully.
Leave the North Star to posterity—they will well need it who follow us. There remains hope for us yet.
But how long will that hope last? The cold night is long, and though I am loth to wrench my gaze from the sky, I fall anyhow to sleep. Just at twilight I rise, where one by one the lamplighter extinguishes the bright little dots. How swiftly they are put out!—Stay, stay!
They each are smothered, one by one.
Those who wallow in the luxury of profit, if they would but spend one night as once did their forebears, stripped of their mansions, silks and silvers, BMWs and private jets—then they would see. There is no such thing as past, present, or future: it is but one continuum of time that the heavens lead to eternity. The hope of the past is the hope of the present and the hope of the future—but they are killing that hope, disappointing the past, bereaving the future. The sun is brimming yonder, and the businessmen believe they rise to the auspices of a new day.
Yet there are no auspices. The stars are fading.