At Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, people look through a custom-made telescope owned by Jim Pickering of Fort Lauderdale.

In Central Florida, a vanishing swath of dark sky still shines

A Florida photographer hopes sharing the stars can slow their loss.
At Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, people look through a custom-made telescope owned by Jim Pickering of Fort Lauderdale. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
A Florida photographer hopes sharing the stars can slow their loss.
Published Aug. 3
Updated Aug. 5

KISSIMMEE PRAIRIE PRESERVE — He glances up through the Spanish moss, which catches the campfire’s crackling light. In the gaps between treetops, pale stars arrive like previews.

“I’m like a child this type of night,” Steven Miller says.

The sky is cloudless, a sliver of moon hanging crisp. Along the vast, dry prairie, dregs of sunlight cling to the horizon.

It’s half past 8, mid-May. It’s dark, darkening, but not there yet.

Miller’s fellow obsessives and friends, most in their 30s, sip craft beer and let time drip by around the fire. They fled the workweek for campsites at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, a couple hours south of Orlando. By day, this state park features empty blue skies over Old Florida grassland. At night, the headlamps of visitors glow red, and the expanse above fills up.

Miller studies the moon, bright enough to cast long shadows. “It’s on its way down,” he says. “Get ready, get ready!”

Charcoal drifts on the air; crickets sing; a satellite floats overhead. Venus, then Mercury — they think? — appear. Nobody claims to be an expert. Behind the bright planets, the night takes on the texture of a grainy TV screen.

“Oh, man,” says Miller’s girlfriend, Rebecca Powell, sipping wine. “It’s going to be so good tonight.”

A firefly lands on Miller’s shoulder as he scans the forecast for Okeechobee. Periodic clouds, but otherwise clear. He busies himself with kindling while his friends make each other laugh.

“Are you gonna go?” asks Marty Proctor, a retiree who tramps over with a Coors in hand. “The troops are getting restless.”

“I want to stay here for a little bit,” Miller says. He and his friends draw out the hours, nestling toasted marshmallows into saltine crackers until finally it’s 10:30. The setting moon is a faint orange smear.

A night of stargazing begins with s'mores for dark sky advocate Steven Miller and friends at Kissimmee Prairie State Preserve.
A night of stargazing begins with s'mores for dark sky advocate Steven Miller and friends at Kissimmee Prairie State Preserve. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

***

From that passing satellite’s view of Florida, the lights of Tampa and Miami and Orlando burn so bright they set the peninsula ablaze. Only a few patches of darkness puncture the glow. This, here, is one. Which makes it a destination for the Central Florida chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association. Which makes it one of Miller’s favorite places.

He’s 33, a wedding photographer. He wears a black T-shirt that reads I need my space, and he makes for an infectious celestial ambassador, eager as a golden retriever and prone to the phrase, “That’s fantastic.”

Miller has lived in Florida since he studied hospitality at the University of Central Florida. The state’s hazy, featureless, orange-tinted nights weren’t something he thought much about. Where he’d grown up in Maryland, that was just how nights were.

About six years ago, he visited his mom at the summer home she’d briefly kept in Maine, in a town that brushed up against Acadia National Park. She was frustrated because acorn-style street lights had appeared in front of her home, washing away the night sky. Miller didn’t understand until he walked away from the lights and saw for himself the stars that had been stolen.

His next birthday, he rallied some friends to drive down to a place he’d read about online, the Kissimmee preserve. A crisp night rewarded him with a view of the outer bands of the Milky Way — his home galaxy.

He camped under new moons and full moons — “like black and white daylight” — and honed his astrophotography. He and a friend made a pilgrimage to Big Bend National Park in the West Texas desert, rated a Bortle Scale “1” for pristine darkness. (Las Vegas ranks a 9; Tampa isn’t far behind.) Stars clotted the sky, horizon to horizon. Such closeness to the planet felt elemental, an intoxicating blend of fear and awe. What seemed like clouds took on sharp edges and revealed a complex structure that the Greeks and Romans had called a river of milk. When he stepped out of his tent at 4 a.m., the galaxy’s light cast a faint shadow across his body. He thought, It’s not fair. Two hundred years ago, this sky turned for everyone.

His habit of looking up means that sometimes Miller spots the International Space Station trailing its unblinking light over downtown Orlando. He’s caught a few shooting stars, too. But it’s feeling harder and harder to escape humanity.

Every new patch of sprawl around him seems to have a Checkers drive-thru lit up like a baseball stadium. Orlando’s gas stations and Tampa’s strip malls and the interstate’s mammoth TV billboards blow out the darkness. Cookie-cutter subdivisions eat into what unlit green space the state has left. Miller knows what happens in this false eternal daylight. It poisons our sleep. Frogs and crickets go quiet. Fireflies go dark. The turtles think lit-up condos are moonlight on the crests of waves, and birds fatally mistake the glow of high-rises for their atlas of stars. All of this Miller has read in books like The End of Night, and heard in dark-sky meetings, and seen in his own city. He has learned that the world grows brighter by 2 percent each year, a number that compounds and compounds, so that 80 percent of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way. Miller has found himself wondering: How do you get people to care about something they don’t know is missing?

***

Steven Miller (center) looks over photos with his girlfriend, Rebecca Powell, (left) and Liz Aguilar (right) while waiting for the sun to set.
Steven Miller (center) looks over photos with his girlfriend, Rebecca Powell, (left) and Liz Aguilar (right) while waiting for the sun to set. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Powell refreshes her wine, Miller unloads his camera gear from the car, and they join their friends in walking the long road along the prairie. Some are regulars who attend Zoom meetings to discuss the subtleties of the light spectrum. Some are new and curious. Their sneakers crunch on the crushed limestone path.

They don’t need flashlights — the stars are sufficient.

“You know, when you actually look at it in person, it makes you appreciate how delicate starlight is,” Miller says. “How they really aren’t that bright, but just bright enough to get lost in that stuff.”

He points to a low constellation. “Ooh, that’s a good sign,” he says. “Scorpius is up. That means the Milky Way’s up. Let’s go find her.”

A long stretch later, they make a turn, past a sign: Welcome to the Astro Pad, “The Red Light District.”

They walk into what amounts to a grassy cul-de-sac carved into a field of saw palmettoes, opening the sky up around them like an observatory’s dome.

A few people are there in the dark, circling a massive telescope. Blue-black and salted with stars, the sky has weight and texture, blackest at its zenith above.

Dark sky campers look through a custom-made Starstructure 28-inch telescope owned by Jim Pickering of Ft. Lauderdale, who was not part of the organized group.
Dark sky campers look through a custom-made Starstructure 28-inch telescope owned by Jim Pickering of Ft. Lauderdale, who was not part of the organized group. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

A pickup rolls down the road, headlights burning, having apparently ignored the sign that reads, Stars up, lights down. The group calls out in protest. Proctor — whose claim to fame, he says, is an appearance on Jackass — raises a middle finger.

“You want to see a galaxy?” asks the man at the helm of the telescope, enjoying the group’s attention. He punches in a code, and the body whirs and turns. “I trust that you’re not making this s—t up,” Proctor says, and walks up a stepladder for a look.

It’s nearing midnight, and Miller holds his Night Sky app to the horizon over Port St. Lucie, where the Milky Way should be. The connect-the-dots of constellations fill the screen. Yet to the naked eye, that swath of sky is a bluish smudge — no stars. The effect is like a chalkboard eraser over the tree line.

“It’s right there, agh!” he says.

He’s learned there is no escaping the built-up world. Most egregious are the blinking red lights coming from a new service station near Yeehaw Junction. But all around them, the horizon takes on the watery blur of light pollution, with the biggest orb over Orlando, more than 100 miles away.

He’ll have to wait for it to rise higher.

“There’s a shooting star!” Powell calls. “Baby, you missed it again!”

***

Sometimes, when he’s out here, Miller hears the old-timers’ lament. They’ve been coming for 30 years, they say, and never used to see any skyglow.

The state has almost no pristine darkness left. Those in search of stars come here, designated Florida’s first Dark Sky Park in 2016. There’s also Big Cypress National Preserve on the edge of the Everglades, and a few regions along the panhandle where civilization is thinnest. There’s also one of the nation’s remotest national parks, Dry Tortugas, a weathered fort atop scattered islands some 70 miles beyond Key West. Only there, flung into the Gulf of Mexico, can Florida claim a Bortle Scale 1. Miller wants to go.

He says he spent his college years a bit clueless about what he wanted to do with his life. A natural people-pleaser, he thought hospitality could be a good fit.

But working hotels felt wrong. Desk-bound, battling customers who thought a broken coffee pot entitled them to thousands of points — he needed out. Ten years ago, he started a photography business. He saw photos as time capsules. Wedding kisses, captured, he could give back. As his interest in the night sky grew, he started asking couples: Had they ever seen the Milky Way? Nine out of 10 said no. At the preserve, he made long exposures, so that couples could see themselves under ancient stars. “We’re going back in time for a night to see the sky the way it was years and years ago,” he says, “and then you get to take that with you for the rest of your life.”

Steven Miller takes engagement photos under the night sky. The work makes him proud — and dazzles couples who have never seen the Milky Way.
Steven Miller takes engagement photos under the night sky. The work makes him proud — and dazzles couples who have never seen the Milky Way. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

His dark-sky friend Madelline Mathis couldn’t make it tonight, but he’s heard her stories of growing up in Dripping Springs, Texas, under the Milky Way. It was just there. Then in Florida, where she came for college, it wasn’t.

She talked about the absence in class, and soon formed a modest Central Florida chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association. They were college students, scientists and astronomy enthusiasts, and some who just remembered the old skies.

One of her Rollins College professors was a city planner in Groveland, where Orlando’s suburbs meet wilderness. The small, progressive city was looking to adopt environmental causes and hired Mathis to help make Groveland Florida’s first certified Dark-Sky Community — like her hometown.

That has meant buying meters so residents can map light pollution. It has meant taking inventory of city lights, noting retrofits to be done within five years (for instance, swapping acorn lights for warm-spectrum LEDs with shielded fixtures). And it means using dark-sky friendly ordinances to evaluate plans for new homes and buildings.

But as Groveland embraces meaningful changes, and New Zealand tries to become the world’s first Dark-Sky country, huge developments spill light into Big Cypress. A new guitar-shaped Hard Rock hotel in South Florida shoots six strings of light skyward. And everywhere, Mathis sees energy-efficient but needlessly bright LEDs, whose short, blue wavelengths bleach the sky in a much wider area than older, yellow sodium lights — one step forward, two back, she thinks, but not yet a lost cause.

***

Powell lies on her back, quiet. A friend, new to all this, sits beside her. She tells him she never went camping until she started dating Miller.

“What do you see?” her friend asks.

“So much,” she says. “There’s a really bright star right above us like a diamond. Relax your whole face. It really helps. It opens up your peripherals, too.”

One of her first dates with Miller, she tells him, they came out here. “Point out a star,” he’d say. “That one!” she’d say. And they’d look up the name.

Steven Miller asks friends to line up for a portrait under the stars, where he hopes the Milky Way will emerge from behind the skyglow.
Steven Miller asks friends to line up for a portrait under the stars, where he hopes the Milky Way will emerge from behind the skyglow. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Lulls of quiet pass over the Astro Pad, and a chill settles in. Past midnight, the sky darkens more as cities go to sleep. In places, the stars sink lower.

“What’s so crazy is that this is the night sky in Orlando,” Powell says. “You just can’t see it.”

Miller lies on his side in the dew-damp gravel. His camera on a low tripod, he adjusts its focus on some friends. He tells them to stay put.

“Can we move now, Steve?”

“Fifteen seconds, starting — now,” he says. “All right. Hold still.”

The camera sounds its slow click. “Look at that,” he says. They huddle by the screen. At the top, the darkest sky, sharpest stars. By their silhouetted knees and ankles, beginning to emerge, are the telltale smoky wisps.

“All that was above you guys.”

Despite the light rising from Vero Beach, Miller makes out a little more of the Milky Way’s soupy swirl. It won’t rise fully until the small hours, and he’s not sure he can last that long.

Sometime before 1:30 a.m., he and Powell call it a night. Stars light the road back to their tent. They take a last look. The Milky Way hangs like a whisper of mist, faint but still there.

On the ground, Steven Miller sets his camera to take photos of the night sky, using a red light to protect his and others' dark-adjusted vision.
On the ground, Steven Miller sets his camera to take photos of the night sky, using a red light to protect his and others' dark-adjusted vision. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Reducing light pollution

The International Dark-Sky Association recommends these steps:

Install lightning only when and where it’s needed. And light should be no brighter than necessary.

Shield your lights so they shine down on the ground, which reduces harmful glare and decreases skyglow.

Use controls, such as timers, dimmers and motion sensors, on outdoor lights.

Use warm color lights where possible. Limit the use of harmful blue wavelength lighting.