• Laurel Contributor

A Deep and Dazzling Darkness

by Luke Osteen

Is “Netflix and Chill” losing some of its magic? Enjoy nature’s free streaming service, right outside your door.

You know the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau is the home to unique, not-to-be-missed natural wonders – the waterfalls springing from nearly every rocky feature, the astonishing botanical diversity, and, if we’re going to get granular, the variety of salamanders wriggling through the underbrush.

But there’s one feature, nearly unparalleled in the Southeast, you’ll find here that’s ignored by way too many people. And you don’t have to wander deep into the brush or clamber up a rocky escarpment to enjoy this natural wonder.

All you have to do is wait until sunset, tilt your head back, and enjoy the sight. Directly over your head is a spectacle as dazzling and pristine as anything you’d see on a 4D HD Television, a show now in its 4.5 billionth season. Plateau skies are not compromised by particulates in the air, or heat inversions, or, most damaging of all, light pollution.

Of course, it’s possible that your home is near a streetlight, or perhaps your neighbors have bright security lights that inhibit your sky-watching potential.

If that’s the case, consider these wonderful viewing sites – close by, panoramic, and black as a mineshaft at midnight.

If you live in Cashiers, it doesn’t get much easier than heading to The Village Green. The Commons area is perfect for stargazing. You can spread out a blanket, enjoy a late night snack or beverage, and lie on your back. It’s a languid way to enjoy the evening, unchanged since the Babylonian astronomer/priests of 5,000 B.C.E.

In Highlands, you can visit Sunset Rock, across from the Highlands Nature Center. Park your vehicle across from the Nature Center, and hike the gentle road to the summit. Naturally, bring a flashlight. The road is slowly eroding and you can twist your ankle if you’re not careful.

That flashlight will come in handy at the top, to ensure that you don’t plummet to your death. Plus, you don’t want to stumble (as I have) over a couple who are apparently enjoying one another more than the celestial view. That’s only happened to me once, though I’ve enjoyed the stars there dozens of times.

If, on the off chance that you don’t relish the idea of a speedy though relatively painless death, or you choose not to share your evening with hidden clusters of adults making out, really making out, consider Highlands Memorial Park, located on Highlands Memorial Park Road, just off of US 64.

This is a beautiful setting and offers a stunning view of the sky, all the way to the horizon. I’ve occasionally run into others enjoying the spectacle, but they’ve always been hushed and respectful.

Once you’ve settled in to your spot, you’ll be astonished at the sheer depth of the display. The Milky Way reveals itself as the faint band she’s always been, having all but vanished from most of the United States.

If you’re not sure what you’re gazing at, there are some splendid star map apps you can install on your phone. I’ve enjoyed Sky Map, although SkyView has an eerie soundtrack that can really enhance the star-watching experience.

And if the naked-eye experience just isn’t enough for you and you really want to take advantage of the pristine, black-velvet night, you may want to check out an 8-inch Orion Telescope from Albert Carlton-Cashiers Community Library. It’s available free of charge to anyone with a valid library card. Using this lightweight instrument, I’ve been able to clearly see Jupiter and its moons, Mars and its ice caps, and the Orion Nebula. If you really want to get lost amidst the stars, this is the tool for you.

If you’re still not sure that lying on your back in the middle of nature is for you, let me make an offer.

On the evening of June 10, the enormous planet Jupiter will be at its closest approach to Earth. It will be brighter than any other time of the year and will be visible all night long. If you have a medium-sized telescope, like the one you can check out from Cashiers Library, you’ll be able to see the orange and butterscotch bands that ring this gas giant. Even a pair of binoculars will net a view of Jupiter’s four largest moons, silently orbiting either side of this most majestic planet.

Watch this show with open eyes, an open mind and an open heart, and I promise you’ll be hooked.

If not, well, enjoy the rest of this issue of Laurel and be grateful that at least you didn’t fall off a cliff or stumble over some irate lovers.

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