Here in Canyon Country the architecture of the landscape fills the senses. Towering walls of sandstone, incised canyons snaking across mesas, erosional remnants of arches and bridges that seem too spectacular to stand, all of these features define the land. But let us not forget another component that enhances the beauty of this desert – the skyscape.
Although you won’t find ‘skyscape’ in the dictionary, its very presence betrays any definition. From the far-reaching brilliant blue of a summer day to a crystalline night sky, the skyscape compliments this rocky landscape. And during a typical August day this skyscape may become a dramatic addition to the viewshed.
An August day often starts out blanketed by a brilliant blue sky washed with warmth. As the mercury rises, so does the amount of moisture evaporating from vegetation and water sources. Invisible to the eye, this water vapor ascends like an augur’s (an ancient Roman prophet) prediction, then begins to condense at higher and cooler altitudes to form clouds. At first there may be just a few random clouds; however, as the day progresses and evaporation and condensation increases, so too does the expansion of clouds.
During August the daily weather report usually calls for “a chance of afternoon showers.” That covers everything from stray drizzles to thunder-boomers. Yet when the thunderheads show their dark underbellies, the meteorologists should be corrected from a “threat of rain” to a “treat of rain.”
When thunder echoes off of the canyon walls or rattles through the mountain peaks, this may signal a Beethoven crescendo orchestrated by pulses of lightning and the percussion of thunderclaps. Sometimes a harmony of rain sweeps across the desert; sometimes the storms fizzle and fade and disappear towards Colorado. Even the short-lived storms may unleash a deluge of biblical proportions with flashfloods and ephemeral waterfalls plunging off of the sandstone cliffs. But the day’s spectacular skyscape does not necessarily end here as the clouds dissipate like the Roman Empire.
The Nocturnal Skyscape
Punctuating the transition from day to night may happen in the guise of fiery colorings in the western sky or blushing clouds peppered across the sky. Twilight pulls the shades of the nocturnal skyscape down closing out the memory of the day.
This transition often indicates the show is over, but in reality, it’s just beginning. The desert night sky offers a spectacular viewing of the Milky Way Galaxy, zodiac constellations, distant planets and meteor shower shows that surpasses any Las Vegas night act. Because of southern Utah’s isolation, this area experiences little light pollution thus making the viewing that much better. In an urban setting you might be able to view 500 stars at night, but here under crystalline nighttime skies, over 15,000 stars are visible. I know because someone else counted them.
The Dark-Sky Association, based in Tucson, Arizona, dedicated Natural Bridges National Monument as the nation’s first Dark Sky Park on March 6, 2007. The Association’s mission is to preserve the clarity of night skies and to educate the public about light pollution. Surrounded by thousands of acres of wild landscape and no major towns, Natural Bridges was a perfect choice to highlight the heritage of the night sky. More than just a ceremony, this dedication bridges the span of time between today and the Ancestral Puebloans who roamed this landscape a thousand years ago. Those Ancient Ones looked up and saw the same night sky we see today (minus the air traffic and orbiting satellites, of course) and probably shared our same thoughts: What is out there?
Although I may have a more scientific understanding of the stars and phases of the moon than these early canyon dwellers, I can easily share in the wonder and mystery that these inhabitants must have felt watching the moon wax and wane over time. That these Ancestral Puebloans paid more attention to the night sky than I do today is a given. An agrarian-based society needed to understand the seasonal changes associated with the movement of the stars to successfully plant and harvest their crops. Today, I can just look at the calendar (thanks, Augustus Caesar) and figure out my gardening schedule.
Count on the desert skyscape as a source of inspiration and awe. And during this month, treat yourself to a ringside seat for the Perseids Meteor Shower that will peak around August 12 or 13.