- Greg Burke
- Sandhill Cranes.
One of the “highs” along the Oregon Desert Trail, at sixty-three hundred feet, is Pine Mountain, located thirty-four miles south- east of Bend this side of the small community of Brothers. After cresting Horse Ridge it comes into view. Though there are many more dramatic and breathtaking mountains to enthrall day-trippers and thru-hikers on the ODT, this is the only one with an observatory perched on its flank, proffering the enticing invitation to look up. Owned and operated since 1967 by the University of Oregon’s Physics Department, the Pine Mountain Observatory (PMO) is open to the public for stargazing business on weekends from the end of May through mid-September. The cost of admission has most definitely not kept pace with inflation, a suggested five-dollar donation. Add to that a Forest Service campground adjacent to the observatory, and it’s worth an overnight stay while on the ODT. The mission of the observatory is evenly split between research on white dwarf stars, the examination of large-scale galaxies, and a commitment to public education. High school groups come on field trips and are supported by the PMO in the analysis of the data they collect and the preparation of related papers. Night sky guides (observatory staff ) are available to answer questions. Pine Mountain Observatory has also created software for K–12 teachers to perform observations and draw stellar conclusions from the comfort and convenience of their classrooms. Housed under UFO-like silver domes, the observatory has three different Cassegrain reflectors as well as a fourteen-inch telescope installed in 2015 that is operated remotely from the University of Oregon campus for research by undergraduate students.
For the Pine Mountain Observatory staff, looking up is their profession—punching the time clock at dusk and heading for bed at dawn. For amateur astronomers, it is a passion. The need they have in common is a pitch-black night sky.
As a young boy at a badly needed appointment with an optometrist, the dedicated amateur astronomer Richard Berry remembers he could hardly see the largest E on the eye chart. Then he got glasses. He describes it as going from “the letter to the infinite.” He turned his gaze to the stars and has remained fixed on them ever since. Telescopes inside small shed-like structures populate his llama pasture on his Stayton, Oregon, farm. “From my observatory, I can capture images of everything from comets, like Comet 46/P Wirtanen now passing close to the Earth, to asteroids—such as my namesake, 3684, Berry—as well as nebulae, star clusters, and distant clusters of galaxies halfway across the universe.” Berry is considered one of the foremost astronomers working in astrography, according to Dr. Alton Luken of the Pine Mountain Observatory. Berry works with a super-sensitive digital camera attached to a special telescope called an astrograph and has run exposures of twelve thousand seconds “catching faint clouds of interstellar dust,” as he describes it.
But his farm on the western slopes of the Cascades is not the sanctuary for darkness it once was. “Light pollution is a big problem for anyone making images of celestial objects,” Berry says. “From here is Lyons—just a tiny town—but lights from the Freres lumber mill smear light all over the southern sky. Salem creates a light dome that is worst to my west, but even the overhead and eastern night skies are much brighter than any natural sky. And Portland, even though it is some seventy miles distant, glows on the northern horizon.” His solution? “From time to time, I take a small telescope to the east, to the high desert where the light of the cities is finally reduced to smudgy discolorations on the western horizon.”
Encroaching light pollution on observatories located near larger cities makes Pine Mountain all the more important. But even PMO is noticing changes. In direct proportion to Bend, Redmond, and Prineville’s growth, the darkness north of the observatory is increasingly compromised, not unlike the pressure being felt on other types of wilderness in central Oregon due to the exponential population increases in the area. The light domes over Bend, Redmond, and Prineville are broadening. When your day begins at dark, your research and livelihood dependent on pure darkness, this matters. Dr. Luken, who minds the astrological store at Pine Mountain, admits he is a sky crusader, “hopelessly impassioned” about what he does. Looking into the future, he anticipates Bend and Redmond will eventually merge into a single light dome. When that happens, Luken predicts the negative impact will be significant. As it is, there are already “signs of compromise,” he says. Circumpolar constellations, like the Big Dipper, to the northwest of Pine Mountain are getting harder to see even above the thirty-degree mark. Generally speaking, astronomers don’t concern themselves with stars below thirty degrees, zenith (straight up) being ninety degrees. The reason? The air mass gets thicker the lower on the horizon you go. Says Luken, “We don’t flirt with the low regions. Too much air in the way.” But, Luken reassures, if the observatory had to choose where to locate itself for consistent views of the Milky Way, Pine Mountain remains as good a spot as any, given that the center of the cross- section of the Milky Way runs east and west over Pine Mountain and will never migrate toward the light domes. He is quick to remind, we are not looking at the Milky Way but out through it. We are in and of it. Dr. William Kowalik, an associate of Luken’s, sent me a show- stopping image taken at the Pine Mountain Observatory of the Milky Way rising to the east, where the skies are still dark despite the man- made light interference to the west. Fiery. Braided. Dragon-like. Ferociously beautiful, powerful, humbling, magnificent. Jack’s Beanstalk snaking up and over the night sky. That it’s hard to wrap our heads around the notion we’re looking from the inside calls attention to our tendency to see everything as other—peoples of different colors, cultures, religions—or taking place elsewhere—drought, flood, famine. Cartoonist Walt Kelly’s twist on Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s words comes to mind, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” With all the talk of light, moving toward light, light and life, you light up my life—the loss of darkness, the loss of the obsidian pitch blackness, of the raven abyss might seem a good thing. Darkness is associated with something foreboding, evil, undesirable, and in the case of outer space, an unfathomable infinity, a stark reminder of the human race’s small purchase on things. So go ahead, look away.
Look at something you know, like yourself.
Also see this upcoming event at the High Desert Museum:
Hear author Ellen Waterston read from her new title, "Walking the High Desert: Encounters with Rural America along the Oregon Desert Trail." Uniting stories from across this diverse landscape—the humans and non-human voices—Waterston weaves an incomparable narrative of wonder, science, history and prose. Walking the High Desert is at once travelogue, meditation, memoir, history, philosophy, …
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