A reef in the middle of the desert is oxymoronic fodder for the imagination. In south-central Utah, it’s a supernatural reality.
For billions of years, life on earth has relied on predictable rhythms. Winter and summer; birth and death; day and night. All living organisms are genetically programmed to act in accordance with these rhythms; they guide behaviors such as sleep, survival, and reproduction — they influence moods, spur hibernation, and in their entirety, render life livable. Night, for humans, is a time of rest, though for many species it is the opposite: activity to the nth degree, a completely operative world unbeknownst to those who walk on two legs.
This is especially true for many desert creatures, whose survival is largely dependent on avoiding daylight hours. A July afternoon at Capitol Reef National Park is obvious proof as to why this must be so; there is no other alternative in a land that bakes continuously under the desert sun.
But these night-wandering animals are onto something, and this “something” isn’t just a matter of life and death — it is also a matter of aesthetic and delight, a gateway to worlds beyond our own.
As far as the American West goes, Utah summer nights are famous, and Capitol Reef nights particularly so. High afternoon temperatures drop to coastal averages by the time constellations are in plain view. Visitors come for the hiking and stay for the stellar heavens of this designated dark sky park, which are (in an industrialized world) more rare than the masses realize — almost as if the reality of the sky has been obscured without our recognizing it, all for the objectionable sake of turning darkness into day.
Light pollution is unsurprising. Humans are often at a loss when it comes to ambiguity; it is uncomfortable to confront how much we don’t know about any particular issue, and even more so to confront the unknown of what lies beyond our physical world. Pushing electricity to all corners of the earth seems a fitting response to this anxiety. The more we know about the universe from a scientific perspective, the less we have to think about it.
Enlightenment ideals remain as valid today as ever, but modern reliance on artificial light has taken some of the magic out of exploring personal theorizations of what our relatively newfound knowledge of the cosmos means, or why this knowledge even matters.
Hundreds of years ago, conceptions of the universe were much simpler. Long before our understanding of infinite, formless space scattered with voracious black holes, medieval Europeans relied on their imaginations to theorize as to why stars or planets might exist. Most of this pre-Renaissance thought was heavily influenced by religion, but much of it also felt strikingly similar to a Tolkein or contemporary sci-fi novel — even to the point that it barely resembled what we’d consider Christianity today.
Based in part on work by the likes of Aristotle and Plotemy, the most widespread beliefs had to do with “celestial spheres.” This cosmological model posited that our universe revolved around a motionless earth composed of four elements (earth, water, fire, and air), and also accounted for Zodiac signs. Its outermost “sphere” divided the heavens into three parts, all named as if they were Elvish kingdoms — incorruptible and glorious, as well as visible from earth: a twinkling eventuality of promise and power.
Living in the “Dark Ages” didn’t necessarily prove a hindrance to these thinkers’ mental explorations. Of course, their thought is of little practical use now, but it isn’t useless. These thinkers interacted with and relied on the night sky in unexpected ways, most of which would feel totally foreign to the average 2020s suburban dweller.
But visit Capitol Reef and any one of the industrialized world’s suburban or urban dwellers can experience what someone in a medieval city would have been privy to on any given night of the year.
The park’s night sky could have been the model for painted medieval ceilings: Sainte Chapelle in Paris, St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow. The former’s renowned, dark blue “sky” is dotted with glittering gold stars — the heavens descended to earth. Louis IX’s private chapel, Sainte Chapelle adopts the astral as an integral part of terrestrial experience.
Thousands of miles away, Capitol Reef evokes similar feelings. Its night sky also feels like a simulation — something painted rather than real, but this isn’t just because of its astrological wonder. Something to do with undulating layers of orange sandstone in such close juxtaposition with the milky way takes any color-sensitive spectator straight to Mars. It isn’t Planet of the Apes freaky, but it is otherworldly. Startling, even.
If medieval thinkers had seen Capitol Reef, they may have believed it to be an alien sphere IRL.
The 20th century American writer and naturalist Henry Beston famously asked if “modern folk [are] afraid of night … [if] they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of a star.” The sci-fi genre’s universal popularity suggests modern folk are at the very least intrigued by these outer realms — nearly as much as those who have come before. It seems that in recent years it has become more acceptable to believe in aliens, to legitimize UFOs, to accept the “I don’t know’s” of astrophysics. The difference between present and past is more in the way we tend to forget that stars exist — that we can, at least in theory, observe them from afar. We almost never do.
The beautiful thing is, Capitol Reef gives its visitors plenty of time to contemplate the cosmos in case there are personal conclusions to be had. Life moves slower at and around Capitol Reef, not only because this place and its environs exist in “nature,” but also because they are an arresting physical manifestation of the passage of time. Millions of years of erosion. Millions of years of mystery under the stars. Millions of years right before your face. Contemplate in the company of a personal peach pie to inhale the orange and exhale it out — an exercise in spatial immersion, becoming one with Navajo Sandstone domes and shades rust, tangerine, and cotton.
Mostly, this geologic wonderland is as close to outer space as the average earthling can get. It is one continuous cathedral of abnormal earth science. A refresher of the senses, a celestial pedestal — it is a vitamin C-laden taste of the universe’s strangest corners; a gateway to awe-inspiring eternal spheres.
Starry Sky: Chris Henry
Capitol Reef: James Lee
Made to spend.