In a year plagued by social isolation, pain and suffering, perspective and silver linings are hard to come by. But up above, when the days fade away, the heavens are always there to remedy our souls — if we can find them.
James Bruce McMath has not always been enchanted by the stars, but now, that descriptor itself may not be enough to adequately sum him up. Before his newfound retirement, he was a lawyer at McMath Woods, P.A., in Little Rock, a son of the firm’s founder and former Governor of Arkansas, the late Sidney McMath. But these days (or nights), the retired litigator devotes most of his attention to matters beyond our humble rock as the chairman of the Arkansas Natural Sky Association (ANSA), an affiliate of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).
Now an “amateur astronomer” by his own humble description, McMath sort of fell into the awe-inspiring pastime during adulthood.
“I was trying to find something to stimulate my oldest son scholastically and jumped on the idea of getting a telescope; it caught with me, it didn’t catch with him,” he says behind a hearty laugh.
One with a similar interest and appreciation for the stars will find it easy to hang on his every word, and perhaps the same could even be said of those with astronomy apathy. His deep, smooth tone pairs perfectly with his merry white beard, cheerful eyes and joyous smile. He’s not an astral prophet, nor a celestial Claus — just a man with a genuine passion for what he does, as fringe as the subject of stargazing may seem. And last year, that spirit became much more kindred to his fellow Arkansans than usual.
It was a strange cloud of coronavirus that hovered above our every thought in the spring of 2020, soon rising above the horizon of hypothetical to become the persistent fog of reality that has lingered through our midst since — at the store, at our workplaces, in our homes.
Despite the pandemic’s rage, another far less treacherous group of clouds remained above us — the kinds that inspire, strengthen faith and instill hope. The king of which is the inner band of the Milky Way, our home galaxy; then there are the splotches of our galactic neighbors, alien places like the Andromeda and Pinwheel galaxies; a little closer to home are star-forming clouds like the Orion and Eagle nebulae.
But, while these antidotes for our angst above us are immune from a virus, they are not immune from us. Just when we needed them most, we had drowned out their light with our own, pushing our natural night skies to the brink of extinction. In the United States, 80 percent of Americans can’t see the Milky Way at night, and most of the other supernal wonders are also out of sight. Artificial light pollution is the chief culprit.
That’s where people like McMath and the ANSA come in: to promote and preserve the stargazing refuges of Arkansas.
“The original cost of this problem [is] the loss of a personal, experiential connection with the universe we live in that’s revealed in a naturally dark sky,” McMath says. “This has been lost so gradually that it just almost went without notice. And then suddenly, people began to realize: You can’t see the night sky anymore. You can’t see the stars. It’s hard to measure, but there’s a social element to that loss. I think it’s estimated that nine out of 10 children in this country grow up without ever having seen the Milky Way. … It’s a formative experience. These kids [today] are living in a world where the whole universe is their cell phone, and have never sat under a naturally dark sky and contemplated their place in the universe.”
Fortunately for us, we do inhabit the Natural State, where opportunities still exist, despite the growing scarcity. McMath and his ilk are determined to get that word out.
* * *
I haven’t seen what most of us city dwellers would call civilization for more than an hour. Interstate 40 took me to Highway 21 through Clarksville as I meander the winding roads of the Ozark National Forest. Many might quickly lose patience at the lack of gas stations, fast food or corner stores through this stretch of backcountry Arkansas, but not me — this remote landscape is exactly what I left Little Rock to find.
With just a few remaining light rays left in the sky, I arrive at the haven I’ll be holed up in for the evening. It’s the Buffalo River Cabin in Ponca, one of the Buffalo Outdoor Center’s many bookable oases. In a place such as this, atop a mountain overlooking the picturesque beauty that resides in this part of Arkansas, most folks would look forward to the morning after their night stay — the first break of light peeking above the hills and treetops, through the slowly subsiding fog. But, once again, not me. My adventure began much earlier, reliant upon the Sun’s departure, not its arrival.
My travel bag finds a hastily chosen home on the bottom floor of the two-story cabin, as I rushedly return to the back porch to catch the first glimpses of starlight. A wave of euphoria rushes over me as the waning orange glow from the sun becomes simply a sliver on the western horizon, met by a cascade of twinkling diamonds in the sky, each of which seems to be alive in its own unique way. It’s impossible to shake the emotion, the curl of a smile that has subconsciously begun at my lips, the slight well of moisture forming at my eyes. This might be as close to the type of sky my most distant relatives saw every night that I will ever witness.
In a literal sense, most of the starlight now meeting my eyes took thousands of years to arrive here, at this moment. In a romantic sense, it feels like it’s taken me almost that long to find them, obliviously clouded by the hazes of suburbia.
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Bortles on the Buffalo
In 2018, McMath and his wife were driving home to Central Arkansas from an environmental conference in Fayetteville. Not a pair to miss out on the opportunity to experience the northwest quadrant of the state while in town, the two decided to spend the night in a cabin along the Buffalo River.
“It was a beautifully appointed place in a lovely spot. A real retreat from urbanity,” he says. “As we were sitting on the front porch, witnessing twilight bringing on the night, the bats emerged into the dim light for their nightly feasting — as I remembered them doing as a child when we lived on a farm in Grant County. It being clear, I was looking forward to taking in a velvety black sky filled with stars.
“Under a naturally dark sky, there are so many stars that it is hard to discern the constellations, and the stars seem to come down to you — almost as if you could touch them. As I was contemplating the treat to come, the dark was suddenly broken. Unnoticed before, the cabin had a utility installed dusk-to-dawn light. There was no way of knowing in advance whether a cabin was so equipped, or had a place from which one could observe [the stars]. I decided ANSA should provide a webpage where people could find places to stay that offered access to nature at night, as well as in the day.”
Prior to this revelation, most of the state’s many cabins and lodges were marketed on the basis of the mainstream tourism amenities: beds, kitchens, porches, hot tubs and the like on property; hiking trails, rivers to float, lakes to fish, and so on, off property.
Shortly after McMath’s disappointing night on the Buffalo, ANSA began devising what is now its Sky Host program, a partnership between the organization and the state’s outdoor hospitality industry. With it, a novel experience for Arkansans’ in-state travel arose — a holistic getaway, where the activities of the day blended seamlessly with the opportunities of the night.
But first, the ground rules.
“To participate, a host facility has to be located under a sufficiently dark sky where the Milky Way would be readily visible — Bortle scale 2 or 3,” McMath says. “Outdoor lighting must be environmentally responsible, which means no dusk-to-dawn lighting, with warm-colored fixtures that are properly shielded. A reasonably open area to view the sky must be available on-site or nearby. Finally, ANSA’s literature drafted specifically for the purpose must be available in each unit.”
His first call to coordinate the program was to Austin Albers, president of the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca and a commissioner for the Arkansas State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission.
“We were the first designated [stargazing] resort in the state of Arkansas,” Albers says. “We’ve always been priding ourselves on no street lights and things like that outside of our cabins, so people can turn the lights out and see the clear sky and look at the stars. That’s always been something that was important to us. So, having the opportunity to connect [with ANSA], and knowing that there are a lot of stargazers out there … we saw it as a good opportunity. And, we didn’t have to change anything that we did, because we were already doing it.”
This first Sky Host partnership would prove to be poetic in its novelty — fusing together McMath, an avid enthusiast of the heavens, and Albers, a businessman with an appreciation for the stars, but not near the obsession of his new colleague — proving the connecting nature of the cosmos. Coming off the heels of the most isolating year in modern history, in an era where discourse and disconnection between us is rampant, we could all probably use a little angelic antitoxin, a spiritual moment with the universe in which we live. A reason to agree on something. One even finds it easy to wonder if its absence has added to this present madness, the aforementioned “societal element” to the loss of a readily available natural sky.
Regardless, the figureheads of McMath and Albers proved to be prescient in their decision making. In 2019, a little less than one year removed from their conclusive handshake, the IDA granted the surrounding area the coveted title of “International Dark Sky Park,” the first in the state and the only one for hundreds of miles.
Thus, the Buffalo National River has been cemented as one of the best destinations for stargazing tourism in Arkansas. Albers’ Buffalo Outdoor Center, founded in 1976 by his father-in-law, Mike Mills, is well-equipped to suit this fervor, with 28 cabins and lodges and an RV park, nearly all of which are Sky Host certified from the ANSA.
Pair this with the area’s already bustling nature during the summer months — which just happens to also be the best time to view the Milky Way — and that sounds about as perfect a place to vacation as any in the state, maybe even the entire South. In fact, Albers shares that many of its incoming visitors of the summer, who book lodging only for the ample activities of the daytime, are taken aback by what comes out at night, most having no idea that this is part of the experience they signed up for.
But, this is not the only location where one can find plenty of stars and solace in the Natural State.
Browse the myriad offerings provided through the Buffalo Outdoor Center at: www.buffaloriver.com
* * *
I still remember the first time I laid eyes on the Milky Way. I’d seen pictures, to be sure — plenty, as a matter of fact. But, there’s nothing like that real-life experience. My beloved and I were deep down the backroads of Lonoke County, still in a quasi-courting phase; not yet married or engaged, but soon to be. (“Especially if my astronomical knowledge impresses her,” I thought.) Stepping out of my vehicle in some desolate field, ready to set up my telescope, it hit me — that remarkable and instantly recognizable, cloud-like band of stars and gas and dust that is the interior of our galaxy. I’d never seen it in person before; had no idea that it was well within my reach this whole time. I thought, because of modern light pollution, I would surely have to find a way to the outer reaches of a western state like Utah to put a check next to this bucket list item. But, here it was — a dream, found in my home state.
The nostalgia of that transcendent moment finds my mind while amid another one at the cabin in present-day Ponca. The Sun is but a distant memory now on this night, and my thoughts echo with the words of McMath, “Under a naturally dark sky, there are so many stars that it is hard to discern the constellations.” Ignorantly, I thought I’d experienced that before in Lonoke County (now on multiple occasions), and this would simply serve as a refresher. But, the star-riddled nightly canvas of Ponca is another world entirely. Even one of the most distinguishable constellations — even in the city — Orion, doesn’t stand out quite as much here, because everything stands out.
It was a frigid December night in the Ozarks, but thanks to my ascendants above, my soul found a warmth like no puffy coat or warm cup of joe can provide. Well, and there was a hot tub.
* * *
A Star Zone in Ozone
The Sky Host program has caught on, especially amid this ongoing pandemic when safe, out-of-the-box but in-state travel was a relished reprieve for Arkansans, many of whom canceled vacation trips to places like Florida, New York, or out of the country.
Andrea and David Cooper were ready and waiting. The pair have owned and rented out what is called Cooper’s Ozark Cabin, in Ozone, since 2012. After partnering with ANSA this year, McMath says that the Coopers have become one of its most enthusiastic members.
Andrea shares, “When we saw the ANSA link on Facebook, we joined right away. We have always followed the International Dark-Sky Association, and we even plan vacations around dark sky areas; for example, we vacationed in the Badlands of South Dakota last year for the hiking and dark skies. We knew we wanted to be part of the Arkansas affiliate and to get involved.”
Business has been good for the couple during the near-decade they’ve operated in Ozone. But, when the pandemic touched down in March and April, their life and business came to a screeching halt, temporarily.
“We had to cancel several out-of-state guests due to the executive order against recreational travel,” she says. “[But], since the travel restrictions were lifted, business has been steady. August is our typical slow month, but we were booked solid this year.”
Some of that resurgence was likely due to the growing cabin fever here domestically, but she is quick to also thank the stars above. Almost immediately after officially becoming Sky Hosts, the Coopers received a reservation booking for August 2021, when a group intends to view the annual Perseid Meteor Shower from their cabin.
“What makes our cabin special is that one doesn’t even need to leave our property to soak in the surroundings,” Andrea says. “Being on 40 acres, we have our own hiking trails and access to the headwaters of the Mulberry River via the Ozark National Forest, which borders our property. During the day, you will typically see an array of wildlife such as deer, rabbits, turkey, or even a black bear. We recently registered our property as a Monarch Waystation, so you can sit on the front porch and watch a variety of butterflies dancing from flower to flower.
“We also are certified as a Natural Wildlife Habitat as recognized by the National Wildlife Federation. The sunsets off of our back deck are phenomenal … [and] at night, the sky comes alive.”
Like the cabins of the Buffalo Outdoor Center, the Coopers’ is within a Bortle scale 2 area, meaning that the Milky Way, neighboring galaxies and a number of nebulae are well within reach for stargazers, as well as our fellow planets of this system, like Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and Mars, depending on the time of year.
Among the many amenities included at the cabin include three bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, pool table, and a back deck with a grill and hot tub. Best of all: The cabin also features a copy of Learning the Constellations by Robert Togni and a pair of binoculars to use during your stay.
To see for yourself, visit: www.coopersozarkcabin.com
The Star(s) of Searcy County
Today, Darryl Treat serves as the executive director of the Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce, but he still finds that his life is influenced by his longtime adoration for the stars. Growing up on a farm near Marshall and now living in the same area, a natural night sky has always been a part of his equilibrium. During his service in the United States Air Force, he practiced celestial navigation daily and nightly as a B-52 Navigator. So, when he amassed the title he now proudly carries, it was only natural that his old friends in the sky would find a service for his community.
“I believe that one must exploit the resources you have,” he says. “For instance, we don’t have ocean-front property in Searcy County, unless you look up; we have something that many Americans do not have, and that is a dark night sky that lets us observe an ‘ocean’ of stars. We are one of the poorest counties in Arkansas, and our Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce is very aggressive in trying to better the economic plight of our citizens. One way to do that is by trying to increase tourism. The natural-night-sky facet of tourism is an exciting and largely untapped resource that we are trying to benefit from economically.”
Searcy County towns like Gilbert are among those leading this charge, urging its representatives in the Arkansas Legislature to help them adopt full-scale, environmentally responsible street lighting to further its path to becoming even more of a pure asylum for astronomy and that slice of the tourism pie.
What’s more, last year, the Chamber dedicated the theme of its annual banquet to the subject, dubbing it “The Stars are Always Out in Searcy County.” Treat tabbed a couple of night sky photographers to come to town as guest speakers for the event. The Chamber also designated an astral photo as the cover of its 2020 Community & Relocation Guide, taken at a county landmark, Smith Barn, by one of the aforementioned photographers, Mike Hall.
A litany of lodging destinations and rentable cabins are already available in Searcy County, but plenty of work still lies ahead for Treat.
“I would like us to make dark-sky compliant lighting a planning factor in all new outdoor lighting in the county, as well as in replacing existing lighting,” he says. “We want people to still be able to use all the light they need outdoors, but to focus and limit it in a way that it just doesn’t pour out light pollution above and beyond what is needed by the user. I also hope to see us integrate dark sky tourism into our bag of tourism offerings, along with more renowned offerings such as floating or hiking at the Buffalo National River. Our near-natural night skies offer tourism potential in all four seasons.”
Treat also operates Elk & Eagle Trading Post in Leslie, which features a number of unique gifts, and proudly displays its “Moon Over the Mountains” Arkansas Quilt Trails block in its window, custom painted by Cindy Garmoe. (As an aside, if you aren’t familiar with Arkansas Quilt Trails, then there’s another line item to add to your next in-state adventure.)
“I think we are in the infant stages of recognizing the tourism potential and healthy living potential of darker night skies,” Treat says. “Our darkest sky areas, such as the Bortle scale 2 sections of Searcy County, should be a wonderful draw to tourists and photographers looking to see and photograph the night sky in a way that is impossible where they live.”
For more information, visit: www.searcycountyarkansas.org
Looking Up, Moving Forward
For as proud as McMath is that so many have joined his fray this year, he is not yet ready to hang his hat and rest on the laurels of a job well done. Like Treat, he is looking at the heart of a long road ahead, trudging through and sharing the joys and the truth with as many folks as he can.
“In a phrase, it’s nature’s grandest spectacle — literally,” McMath says of the wonders above. “You can see all these pictures, but it’s like the Grand Canyon or the Niagara Falls; pictures just aren’t the same as seeing it, experiencing it firsthand. And if someone proposed to go and cover up either of those natural features, or the Painted Desert, you name it — any of the great natural wonders or natural heritage resources in this country — there would be an outcry of unimaginable proportion.”
But, he says, that’s exactly what has happened in most of the country over time, artificial light slowly creeping along and smothering the views above — our family tree of constellations and clusters.
“Our strategy is to promote awareness of the natural sky and the ability to still get out in some places and experience it,” he says. “And that develops a recreational resource, and that also then converts to an economic one.”
But, he’s not a salesman, the stars take care of that part for him. We need only look up to see it for ourselves. When more of us are able to find that appreciation, we might just learn to appreciate each other again.
To find a Sky Host certified rental near you, visit: www.darkskyarkansas.org/maps/stella-host-facilities/