Darkness, Humans, And The End Of Night

starry night sky

Becoming fit for real life has never been exclusively about fitness and gym workouts. To be fit for real life, you must also spend time cultivating a real life that you enjoy immersing yourself into. And so I have a question for you: when is the last time you found a night sky that got dark enough to show you the stars and you sat there and watched them for awhile?

There are few better places to immerse yourself in the experience of living than to sit under a truly dark night sky. 

But we are losing the dark skies and that is a travesty  for humans and animals alike. Paul Bogard teaches about this in his most wonderful book, The End Of Night, which I am going to share nuggets from in the hopes that it will get you to read the book and consider including more night sky in your life.

Darkness Has Become An Afterthought

Darkness has become a ‘problem’. If we want to illuminate a thing, we can – and we will! But darkness is a fundamental component of our human survival. And it’s being blotted out by something of our own creation. We light the night as if it’s day. And that is a huge problem.

Not just because light at night is linked to diseases. Not just because shift work and sleep disturbance significantly affects your health.

Because extinguishing the night and its sky is akin to paving over the Grand Canyon.

We have a natural wonder above our heads and 99% of the population living in the continental U.S. and Western Europe lives in a place where they cannot truly see it.

an orange sky over a city showing how the night sky is affected by light pollution

The orangey-hazy sky glow of a normal urban sky is not the night sky .The greyish black sky of suburbia, with the Big Dipper and Orion the only constellations appearing to be hanging out each night, is also not the night sky.

When you see a dark sky – a truly dark one – it rocks you. Imagine looking up and seeing the Milky Way painting itself in a broad white swath across the sky, viewing M33 easily with the naked eye, and noting how planets hang in the sky like car headlights the Universe forgot to turn off. It bathes you in awe. Your jaw will hang open as you crane your neck skyward. You might even be moved enough to shed a tear or two.

a panorama of the night sky over a desolate desert

No Trespassing

Part of being human, is having both darkness and light. But you probably live in a place where artificial light at night trespasses into your world, disrupting your night sky. I’d never heard of ‘light trespass’ until Bogard introduces it in his book.

The neighbor’s security light that beams into your window. Flood lights left on all night at a school that shine out into the street and the yards of homes across the way. That’s light trespass. If you can’t throw your lawn furniture in your neighbor’s yard, neither should you throw beams of light from your security headlight.

It’s not that dark sky supporters don’t wish for there to be no light, just that light is used at night in a more intelligent way: use only how much you’ll need, at the time that you need it, no brighter than necessary, and keep it fully shielded so it points downward.

examples of light that support and detract from the night sky

Night lighting has received the treatment so many things do – if some is good, more must be better. And like most things, these are good intentions that are misguided and misapplied. In the case of night lighting, we’re using a sledge hammer to open a dollhouse door.

The reality is, your eyes were made to work in varying levels of darkness. Just walk around outside at dusk and shortly thereafter. You can see just fine as your eyes adjust from using their cone photoreceptors to engaging more of the rod photoreceptors in your eye, thus giving you more sensitivity for night vision.

Go outside at night and spend at least thirty minutes away from any light. You’ll see that your vision gets better and better and what was ‘pitch dark’ when you first went out, becomes ‘readily visible’ the longer your eyes get to adjust to the dark. In terms of physiology, you’ve got what you need to see well at night, without heaps of artificial light.

Evolving How We Do Things

In the 70’s America got it together and made an effort to stop littering all over our country, with the Keep America Beautiful non-profit group. And the impact was visible as Americans stopped throwing trash on the ground and started cleaning up our land.

If you saw someone today leave all of their trash behind after a picnic, you’d likely be appalled. Littering is in poor taste, and we can (and did!) do better. The same is true for night lighting.

I’d love to see more environmental activists give attention to light pollution so that children of the future to be born into a world where they don’t have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the experience of witnessing the Milky Way come into full view over an inky black sky.

the night sky with the Milky Way shimmering brightly

This isn’t about making the whole world pitch dark at night. There isn’t a night sky advocate around who thinks big cities like New York City are going to eventually have a true dark sky above them. But if big cities don’t make changes, the light pollution creep that is happening now from their lights will continue to push into the rural areas, eliminating our last true dark skies.

map of the light that pollutes the night sky

By big cities starting to make changes to their night lighting, they can start to ease the orange glow that is seen for miles and miles outside of the city limits, and slightly improve their urban sky overhead. If suburban and rural cities improve their night lighting, they will begin to get back many more of the stars that are there but that can’t compete with light pollution.

If these changes happen, it’s realistic that you wouldn’t need to drive very far out of a city in order to see a Bortle class 3 or 4 sky.

night sky over a campsite

I hope you’ll pick up Paul Bogard’s book, The End Of Night, and get excited with me about the night sky. I’m concluding with a portion of the Wendall Berry poem Bogard referenced, and which made me pause and reflect:

“To go into the dark with a light, is to know light. To know the dark, go dark.” -Wendall Berry

*Thank you to Paul Bogard for allowing me to use a photo from his book.
*Night sky photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash 

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