By DAVID COLBERT

Traveling by air at night the land below looks like an attempt to mimic the night sky. The expanse of blackness is interrupted. Scattered points of light shine like distant stars. The following image is from much higher than  we are flying, but you get the idea.

This image of Earth’s city lights was created with data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) Operational Linescan System (OLS). Originally designed to view clouds by moonlight, the OLS is also used to map the locations of permanent lights on the Earth’s surface. (visible earth.nasa.gov)

Let’s get much closer. We’ll still see the contrast of light against the blackness. From a height of several thousand feet, you look for order. For neat rows. But some lights follow twisting roads, meandering or creating curlicues. Others are all but buried in foliage or stand apart–lone sentinels attached to somebody’s barn or guarding their driveway. From your unique vantage point, they appear without purpose in the landscape.

Industrial sites and interchanges create streams or rivers of light. Galaxies–for they are too prominent to be constellations.

When we stand and stare at the night sky, we don’t see what a patchwork of bright spots the earth’s settled regions create. There are also voids. Sometimes parallel bands of light are separated by wide strips of darkness. Rivers, lakes, and wild places defy our instinct to keep night at bay.

But from here in the air you can see so much. It takes a nocturnal bird’s eye view to recognize the immensity of the electric web connecting us, strung from one pole to the next and punctuated by pools of light.

Can you see the colors? Cold blues … the harsh, penetrating lights of security lights around buildings and on stadiums. Warmer yellows … the pools of illumination below street lights. And the ominous, flashing red lights warning flyers like us to keep our distance.

Eventually, you land. You collect your belongings, exit the building, and trudge through the same lights you’d admired from above. You find your car and prepare to drive home. You insert your key into the ignition, turn it, and everything in front of you is crisply separated from the night.

You put the car into gear and become one of those free creatures you’d seen moving through the landscape, taking their light with them as they go. To people still aloft, you may even appear to be a firefly, flitting through their musings as their brains try to create context for such an odd perspective.

When you reach your home, you gather your belongings and head to the door. Through the window you see that somebody has left a light on for you. One more look. Before going inside, you turn to the night sky and see familiar groupings of stars in their ordered places. It’s just … right. And as you prepare to re-enter your normal life, greet your family, and rest in your own bed you wonder how you could have dared compare the human attempt with the original reality.