Imagine standing on an isolated shore, far from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, watching the breakers beat a rhythmic lullaby on the sand as the Sun's gleaming disk slowly dips toward the western horizon. Three handspans above the Sun the crescent Moon aims its silvery bow at the brilliant orb which illumines it, the two silently turning with the dome of the sky, master of the day and mistress of the night, toward distant lands where night now takes flight from the dawn's early light.
Its long day done, the Sun dips into the sea, spreading fiery hues of gold and red and amber across the water while its last rays soar between the broken clouds rimming the horizon, holding back the purple-tinged shadows gathering in the east. But soon the Sun's last embers are quenched and night rises out of the east, a great dark cloak which covers the sky and settles upon the land. Only the gleaming arc of the Moon remains to challenge the darkness, while in the waves beneath it countless shattered crescents dance up and down as if restlessly waiting for nightfall to reveal the wonders that were hidden behind the sky's blue curtain while the Sun shone.
This is the hour when the stars appear. As the color drains from sea and sky, points of light begin to glisten in the darkness, the brighter ones first and then the fainter, few in number at first then more and more thickly scattered until, as the Moon follows the Sun's example and dips beneath the horizon the jet-black fabric of the heavens is covered with twinkling motes too numerous to count, and too beautiful for anyone to imagine who has never seen a truly dark sky.
For those who live in modern cities, robbed of the sight of the night sky by the innumerable beacons that line our streets and buildings, the emotional impact of such a sight is hard to understand, and of less concern than events on the other side of the world. But not that long ago such sights were an everyday occurrence, and the minds of our ancestors were filled with wonder at the beauty, the majesty and the mystery of the lights which filled the heavens. It is for that reason that astronomy is the oldest of the sciences, its primitive forms already ancient when even the oldest structures still standing were built, and even now it can stagger us with its infinite variety and scope.
Above, an image of part of the Milky Way as seen in a dark sky (Wikimedia Commons)