New Year’s Eve 2013 again found me in the middle of a hayfield attempting to light a fire in freezing temperatures. But this year, because of the extreme dry weather and fire hazard, we could not build a bonfire. Instead, we hauled an old barrel stove out to a place in the field where the cattle had beaten the ground to bare earth, and stoked the fire until the old stove glowed.
The stove itself has an odd story. It originated from the years when the ranch was a fully functioning sheep and cattle operation, complete with cowboys and old ranch hands. According to my dad, one of those ranch hands one day decided that he wanted to have a stove in the shop to warm his coffee in the mornings. With a little bit of ingenuity and a lot of welding, the old ranch hand turned an empty Standard Oil drum into a fine little wood stove. Eventually, the old ranch hand moved on and my grandfather retired from cattle and sheep and turned the ranch into a horse breeding outfit. The shop fell into disuse and the barrel stove became lost under four decades of junk.
But last October, in a cleaning frenzy, I cleared the debris from the shop and found the barrel stove hidden under the detritus–slightly rusted, but still strong. When we went to build a fire in it on New Year’s Eve, we found kindling and newspaper already set. The newspaper was from 1964 and had a feature story on the trial of Jack Ruby, the man who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald. We burned the fifty year old kindling and saved the newspaper.
Along with the barrel stove, we brought my telescope with us to search the sky for planets and constellations. In all my life I have never known a night sky so vibrant as is found in Lake County. I have seen darker skies with less light pollution and I’m sure at some point I’ve seen a sky with more visible stars, but none of them had the magnetism of the Lake County sky. It’s as if the stars in Lake County have each been ground down to their most essential brilliance – the brilliance of pure light – and then expertly arranged onto a profound canvas of inky black night.
I used to think I was just biased, as anyone tends to be when thinking about home, but I found that I’m not the only one impressed by the Lake County night sky. In 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson spent his honeymoon at an abandoned mining town on the western slopes of Mount St. Helena–about fifteen miles from the hayfield where I took this photo–and he described the night as he saw it back then.
“The sky itself was of a ruddy, powerful, nameless, changing color, dark and glossy like a serpent’s back. The stars, by innumerable millions, stuck boldly forth like lamps…. I have never seen such a night. It seemed to throw calumny in the teeth of all the painters that ever dabbled in starlight…. The nameless color of the sky, the hues of the starfire, and the incredible projection of the stars themselves, starting from their orbits, so that the eye seemed to distinguish their positions in the hollow of space – these were things that we had never seen before and shall never see again.” – Silverado Squatters
(Final photo taken in March 2010)