Into the Darkness: Light Pollution and the Dark Sky Movement

When I think of natural light, I always think of that all-encompassing glare you get at the Australian beach. My grandparents had a house on the northern coast of Tasmania, next to a windy expanse of sand called Preservation Bay. Dad would take us there most summers and soon after arrival we’d beg to go ‘over the beach’, treading a well-worn family path over the train tracks and through the marram grass before launching ourselves off the dunes onto the soft, fine sand.

There, we’d become obscenely freckled and wind-burned in the careless way of 1980s children, exploring the black volcanic rockpools, poking the jelly-red anemones, donning our headdresses of seaweed and fishing for parrot fish off the rocky headland. Sometimes, we’d venture inland, balancing on the train rails, to a secret blackberry patch where we’d pick buckets of the juicy fruit to make jam, our mouths and fingers stained purple by every second berry.

At night, when I tired of sibling squabbling and constant cricket commentary, I’d go and sit outside on the front patio, warming my feet on the concrete still radiating heat from the day’s sun. At times my eyes would wander up to the moon and the night sky, taking in its astonishing array of light, my grandfather’s prized garden receding to a series of unformed dark shapes in my peripheral vision. One constellation of stars always appeared brighter than the others. Someone once told me it was actually the belt of ‘Orion the Hunter’, the ancient Greek constellation, but in my literal child-mind I called it ‘The Big Saucepan’ because it looked like a pot. Its square pan balanced cheekily on one point, while a three-starred handle reached, in elegant balance, from its opposite point. Fred-the pot-Astaire, doing his little dance in the big kitchen.

Like most city-dwellers who happen to look up when out in the country, I found the stars particularly fascinating. It looked like a negative of the growing collection of summer freckles on my arm – layers upon layers of smattered glowing pinpricks, all merging together into the pale tan of the Milky Way.  Of course, to properly see the light of the stars, you have to have the darkest of night skies, the dark side of the moon. It is this that I’d like to talk about.

Late one night, ironically surfing in the blue glow of the internet, I find the website of The International Dark Sky Association. Intrigued, as always, by dark themes and ideas, I read on: ‘The IDA is a non-profit organization that works to help stop light pollution and protect the night skies for present and future generations.’ According to the IDA,light pollution is an excess of artificial light in the environment that not only prevents us from clearly seeing the stars in the night sky, but disrupts important biological processes in people, plants, animals and other ecological systems.

Image by Nathan Anderson. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Here, we’re talking about disturbances at the cellular level; the patterns of wakefulness and sleep, cell growth, metabolisation and reproduction that have evolved over millennia in sync with the temporal and seasonal movements of the planet. As the IDA puts it, ‘For billions of years, all life has relied on Earth’s predictable rhythm of day and night. It’s encoded in the DNA of all plants and animals. Humans have radically disrupted this cycle by lighting up the night.’

In humans, exposure to excess artificial light at night has been shown to increase the risks of depression, insomnia, obesity, diabetes and certain types of cancer, amongst other negative health effects. Animals, sea creatures, insects and microorganisms are also affected by artificial light, in complex and interrelated ways that scientists are only just starting to understand. But while light pollution may cause cellular disturbances, it is by no means a microscopic problem. A recent article in The Guardian reported that ‘light pollution now covers a quarter of the world’s surface’ and has become a key contributor to ‘the insect apocalypse’ – the widespread collapse of insect populations that has the potential to bring about the end of human life on Earth. When you stop to think about it, these prospects are staggering.

Paris at night. Image by Joi Ito. Source: Wikipedia Commons
New York at night. Image by Billy Ward. Source: Wikipedia Commons

I pause a moment to look at the lights all around me – from the innocently blinking lights on my laptop, hard drive and phone, the softly glowing desk light beside my computer, the LED dinosaur that my daughter is dependent on to get to sleep, the light globe above my head, the street lights outside that I nervously gravitate towards when walking my dog at night, the collective skyglow of my local shopping centre, beckoning me into its Christmas paradise and the sparkling rhizome of global cities, which has become so much a symbol of contemporary mobility that it is commonly found in airline and telecommunication commercials. And so, we reach the crux of the matter, for while artificial light has been essential to much of human progress, all the evidence shows that it has now reached problematic levels that affects much more than just our ability to see a pretty sky.

..light pollution reflects the obsessive human quest for self-empowerment, literally ‘enlightenment’, the flipside of which has been our ongoing attempts to eradicate all that is unpredictable, unknowable and ‘dark’ in the world.

Emma Simms

In search of some environmental wisdom, I get in touch with a friend and former boss – Jerry de Gryse, of landscape architecture and planning firm Inspiring Place in Hobart. A long-term member of the Tasmanian Chapter of the IDA, Jerry’s own lightbulb moment (if you’ll forgive the pun) came one night when on holiday on the East Coast of Tasmania. ‘When I looked up’, he said, ‘I thought it was a cloudy night and was stunned to realise it was the Milky Way I was looking at. From then on, I understood the maxim to “respect the dark”’.

Part of Jerry’s work involves campaigning for the establishment of ‘Dark Sanctuary status for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area’. Dark Sanctuaries are essentially areas that are free of impacts from artificial light. Jerry notes that the Tasmanian area ‘presently meets all of the criteria but its status will be threatened if we continue to roll out LED street lights that aren’t properly designed to avoid sky glow.’ Dark Sanctuaries can be seen as having not only health and social benefits, but economic benefits as tourism destinations for a new wave of experience tourists, who are increasingly in search of ‘authentic’ landscapes and meaningful sojourns away from the mundanity of everyday life. Putting aside the very complex discussions around encouraging tourism in pristine wilderness areas, I wonder what it is that experience tourists are looking for? What makes an ‘authentic’ experience over a fake one? And what has the dark sky got to do with this?

A bioluminescent mushroom. Image source: Wikipedia Commons

A clue emerges in an article by self-confessed mushroom enthusiast Anna Chinn, who has written about a specific form of dark sky tourism found in New Zealand. This involves night time forest expeditions in search of the bioluminescent Mycum fungi, which can only be observed under the cover of full darkness. She writes:

I detected what could have been a dapple of moonlight on a leaf and bent to pick it up. Since the moonlight moved with my hand, I knew it was not a dapple at all but a glowing, decaying leaf. A fungus had colonized and consumed this leaf, and in doing so had taken on the leaf’s form, and was now emitting light with the energy it had got from eating the leaf. If a ghost is the remnant energy and/or outline of a thing that is dead, then this is precisely what I was holding in my hand. A leaf ghost. Now I too was seeing spirits in the night forests of New Zealand.

Chinn’s writing is full of this type of astonishment at the details of this glowing forest. It is clear that she is attempting to describe a world that is both elusive and magical, almost hallucinatory in its blurring of the lines between what is real and what is felt in this landscape. The sociologist Dean MacCannell once wrote that ‘sightseeing is a form of ritual respect for society… tourism absorbs some of the social functions of religion in the modern world.’ In this sense, the tourist’s desire to be immersed within the darkness might also represent a craving to be confronted with the vast unknowability of the cosmos, and to come to terms with this confrontation through the shared experience of human rituals.

I wonder what it is that experience tourists are looking for? What makes an ‘authentic’ experience over a fake one? And what has the dark sky got to do with this?

Emma Simms

Conceivably, the call for humans to experience the Dark Sky goes even deeper than scientific or medical rationales. A different perspective might emphasise the ephemeral, spiritual and communal benefits of the dark sky as experienced in place. This goes beyond simply looking at the stars, as anyone who can attest to the difference between looking at stars on a computer screen, and the experience of viewing them as just one part of a living, moving and atmospheric night environment. Jerry de Gryse sums it up beautifully:

As a boy, I remember a camping trip in Michigan. The campground was dark, the only light from the campfire.  We sat up late, telling jokes, sharing stories and ideas and then…. Sputnik went over as scheduled. We all went quiet for a brief moment. It was seminal point in history, when people all around the world briefly looked to the stars. We need to look there again if only to remind ourselves of our shared humanity but also of all those beings with whom we share the planet.

Jerry notes that this type of shared, almost spiritual, experience of the night sky is not a new thing, but has been recently sidelined in favour of the faster, more individualistic and less contemplative, pace of modern life. In this context, light pollution reflects the obsessive human quest for self-empowerment, literally ‘enlightenment’, the flipside of which has been our ongoing attempts to eradicate all that is unpredictable, unknowable and ‘dark’ in the world.

As I write this, I realise I’ve not seen the Milky Way for a few years, although I’m lucky enough to still have access to my grandparent’s house. Walking at dusk in Melbourne, where I now live, my seven-year-old daughter points out the moon and then brightest stars to me as they emerge. Out of a desire to teach her, to engage in some kind of shared ritual, I say the old rhyme:

Star-light, star-bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
have the wish, I wish tonight.

I then ask her rather cheekily, as I know wishes are supposed to be secret – ‘What did you wish for?’ In the sage way of seven-year-olds, she answers, ‘That all the wishes come true’. One of my many wishes for her is that one day she will know the experience of seeing and feeling the dark sky, of understanding that it is somehow essential to the full experience of those light, bright days on the beach, and accepting that darkness is always going to be an integral part of what it means to be human.

Moonrise over the western United States. Image by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Cover image by Michael J. Bennett. Source: Wikipedia Commons