The End of Night: Searching For Darkness In An Age Of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard hit me in an already sore spot. When I first started reading about the impact of light pollution I was like, Great. This book is going to bring out Angry Hailey. My boyfriend asked why I kept reading it since it was bringing me down so much. I continued because the author strikes at something elemental I’m missing. The human need to look up and feel a sense of wonder.
I’ve always loved night. Growing up around horse farms in Central Jersey we had what I thought was a good number of stars and we could see meteors sometimes. The night sky in NYC is nothing more than a hazy greyish nothing. If I go on the roof I can see the moon and a handful of stars, the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan skyline. It no longer feels like a fair trade, which is one of the many reasons we’re working on moving out.
Angry Hailey did come out, but not for long. In order to understand a problem, we have to learn how it effects the health of our minds, bodies and the world we live in. And there is a light through what feels like an onslaught of depressing facts. Light pollution is a serious, but fixable problem.
Bogard begins his search for truly dark nights by traveling 250 miles from Las Vegas to one of the darkest spots in the U.S. He uses The Bortle Dark-Sky Scale created by amateur astronomer John Bortle to measure the level of darkness in a place. New York City is a 9, 98% of should be see-able stars are obscured by artificial light.
The author proceeds to travel from 9s to National Parks that mostly fall on the low end of the scale and discusses what it takes to protect the few 1s we have left. It probably won’t come as a surprise that dark places are disappearing, but actually the awareness of what we are missing is surprisingly new. Bortle didn’t create his scale until 2001. Bogard cites street, exterior home and commercial lighting as major culprits. Streetlights are getting exceedingly brighter, far brighter than we need them to be. Driver’s eyes can’t adjust quickly enough to brightness so we’re effectively blinded. Whereas in dim light the pupil expands, relaxes and we can see better – 30% more light enters our eyes in a dim environment.
These Wait, what? moments are constantly contrasted by nudges of the beauty we’re missing out on. One astronomer and author in Upstate NY Bob Berman says humans need to be able to see at least 450 stars to see the meaning of a real night sky.
There’s a certain tipping point where people look and there will be that planetarium view. And now you’re touching the ancient core, whether it’s collective memories or genetic memories or something else from way back before we were even human.
Bright lights are an annoyance and not necessarily as crime-preventing as we like to think. All good to know. What brought out Angry Hailey was how light pollution affects physical health. Over the last 20 years multiple studies have found a direct link between light at night and “hormone-influenced” cancers like breast and prostate. Light suppresses the body’s ability to produce melatonin, which is key in preventing cancer growth.
My favorite parts of the book are when he travels to the hopeful places, looks up and takes in the stars. An English Island with zero lights at night. A stargazing festival in Canada. The streets of Paris lit with thought towards romantic ambiance, playing with shadows on bridges and illumination that better resembles low burning candles. I love the word “noctambule”, not a sleepwalker but “one who takes pleasure in walking at night”.
It’s much easier to control people who are scared, who won’t leave the house.
Why are people afraid of real darkness? People tend to fear being attacked, but bright light doesn’t cure crime. One 2000 study found that most sexual assaults happen in a residence, 60% in the victim’s and 30% in other places. One of his friends chimed in on this collective fear:
The reality, she says, is that if you sit at home watching TV – something bad is happening – you’re getting sick, and you’re missing out.
Light pollution is a fixable problem and that is the primary reason I hope this book finds a huge audience. Bogard encourages the reader to fight for dark nights so our children (and me!) can see the Milky Way and the hundreds, sometimes thousands of stars surrounding it. Existing exterior lights can be shielded so they don’t send glare all over the place. Even better, Dark Sky groups are slowly organizing in local pockets around the world to raise funds and replace street lights to lower voltage, efficient alternatives. If businesses and complexes would flick off their lights when not open, communities could begin to claim back the sky still glowing behind the glare.
Strange to realize we can’t look up right now and see the same sky Thoreau saw when he contemplated a deliberate life. The sky the author sees when walking through Paris is not the one Van Gogh found.
One of my favorite parts likened darkness to melancholy. Eric G. Wilson, author of Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, picks up on this saying melancholy is a necessary state, the ideal state to appreciate beauty and the passing of time with intensity. Like a clear night, sad songs and stories take us to darker places within ourselves. Places full of possibilities.
I think that’s what darkness is. We have places within us which can never be mapped.
It reads like one of Bogard’s intentions was to compel the individual the seek these dark places and possibly even experience a unique sense of wonder called celestial vaulting (feeling like you’re falling up into the stars). Maybe the desire to look up and feel swallowed is powerful enough to make readers take action: think twice before screwing in the highest voltage available; work with their community for a darker sky; recognize that darkness is a human need. For me, mission achieved. I haven’t looked out my window the same way since.
To be where anyone else could be and yet to find yourself alone feels like discovering a secret.