Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

A Paean to Darkness

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

A Paean to Darkness

Article excerpt

THE END OF NIGHT: SEARCHING FOR NATURAL DARKNESS IN AN AGE OF ARTIFICIAL LIGHT

By Paul Bogard

Little, Brown

325 pp $27.00

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AT AGE 18, PAUL BOGARD HAD A LIFE-CHANGING vision. Stepping outside his youth hostel at the edge of the Sahara, in a remote town where nomadic tribes gathered to barter and trade, he saw "a storm of stars swirl[ing] around me": the night sky as he had never seen it before. Even his family's cabin in rural Minnesota didn't have views like this, almost completely untainted by human light pollution. "I saw the sky that night in three dimensions," he writes. "The sky had depth, some stars seemingly close and some much farther away, the Milky Way so well defined it had what astronomers call 'structure,' that sense of its twisting depths."

He was looking at what was already then a rarity--a sky that probably ranked a class 1 or 2 on the Bortle scale, a system for measuring light pollution that orders skies from 9 (brightest) to 1 (darkest) that was devised by amateur astronomer John Bortle in 2001. In the developed world, even rural nights rarely dip below a Bortle 3; the young Bogard was clearly struck by all the detail he had been missing. "The night pressed its impression," he writes, "and a lifelong connection was sealed." This sense of connection pervades The End of Night, Bogard's paean to a type of deep darkness most Americans have lost to ever-brightening artificial lights.

Bogard, a James Madison University writing professor, builds a case that our view of the stars is a part of our cultural heritage worth preserving. This project took him to both light and dark places around the globe, a journey he organizes into chapters 9 through 1, in an echo of the Bortle scale. He started out in Las Vegas, where the intense beam shooting from the tip of the Luxor Hotel disrupts the feeding and migration patterns of local birds.

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Neon glare isn't the only way to light a city, Bogard points out. In France, for instance, the lighting designer Francois Jousse has made it his life's work to illuminate Paris's monuments with a soft, romantic glow; his techniques include setting lamps underneath bridges, so that pedestrians see by the shimmering reflection off the water below. Nor does dimmer lighting--such as the gaslights that still illuminate some London streets--necessarily give an advantage to muggers, Bogard says, citing several studies on urban crime. Instead, by forcing pedestrians' eyes to adjust to darkness, it helps them see further into shadows where potential attackers could hide.

But in the United States, at least, it's proven difficult to enact sweeping lighting changes based on what many regard as essentially aesthetic considerations--especially when most of the population doesn't really appreciate the aesthetics in question. Though Flagstaff, Arizona, successfully passed anti-light-pollution legislation, the beauty of the stars is barely ever mentioned as a rationale. …

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