The Great Sky River. Trail of the Spirits. Buffalo Dust. Culture after culture has embraced the largest object in the night sky - the Milky Way - and integrated it into their cultural and spiritual beliefs. For example, archeo-astronomers have compiled evidence that every Native culture in the Americas held that the Milky Way was a river or road to the afterlife. Before humans understood it was composed of stars, it was the night story-teller's meadow, dairy, and fish net - and hundreds of other appellations.
Why do we look up and wonder at the stars of the night sky? Why do we weave enduring stories of the constellations and the gods that inhabit the sky. Is the answer related to the why perceive natural beauty in some of nature - but not all of it?
Some theorists posit that perceptions of natural beauty are actually the brain's recognition of archetypal landscape features that promote survival. We may be hard-wired with patterns that are pleasurable to perceive. Waterfalls may feel harmonious because they are abundant, clean water. Cliffs and mountains are defensible, safe homes. From an evolutionary standpoint, innate attraction to helpful items may tend to aid in survival.
I don't know if my own hand-clapping joy for the sight of the Milky Way is universal. But I hope so. Its magnificence is is calming. I crane my neck to be overwhelmed by its arc across the darkness. Within its glow I see proof of a much larger plane of existence than ours. Our cares, our nations, and our planet are inconsequential. The scope of human existence is not big enough to be even a farce on the galactic scale.
Based on my personal survey of one, the inclination to look up at night and say "Wow!" is good for mental health. Stargazing helps relieve my stresses, and begins to put our otherwise unexplained existence into a larger context. It's healing for our souls. Clear dark skies, unpolluted by urban lights are a natural resource we need to preserve, as an increasing number of communities recognize. Take the next chance you get to go an hour out of your way and stare up in unobstructed darkness on a clear summer night. It just might touch something in your soul that needs stimulation.