Turning off the night light

Being an astronomy nerd, I'm continually looking for clear skies and lamenting the gradual upward spill of a noxious glare near my not-quite-rural, not-quite-suburban farm.

As the stars progressively wink out, I lose more than an immensely satisfying aesthetic experience. And I'm beginning to understand the why of that loss.

Dismissively describing the always-on glare in urban or suburban locations as the "night light," Andrew Sullivan, referring to Paul Bogard's book, "The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light,” links the electric glow to human disease, refers to evidence that it does not deter crime and, in addition to our rest, suggests that it disrupts the migrating, mating and eating habits of other species as well. We've been conditioned over the millenia to expect a period of blank quiet to cap the day.

Most don't realize how gradually the klieg lights have come up, but this illustration from the National Park Service shows just how the night has been overcome in the past few decades. Not coincidentally, on a trip last August to northern California, which happens to have some of the darkest skies in the country, the service at Lassen National Park was offering guided tours of a beglamored firmament staked to mountain peaks, one horizon to the other. It was breathtaking. Sadly, according to Bogard's book, 8 in 10 kids today will never see the Milky Way's ethereal display. To give you an idea what the night looks like without the phosphorescent competition, our galactic home is pictured over Utah's Bryce Canyon to the right. But for the synthetic glow, the same, or something similar, might be seen over Louisville too.

Of course, others have made similar observations about disconnect between our senses and sensibilities. Always-on media, for example, disrupts the rythmic cardinals that have kept us oriented toward regular periods of rest for time immemorial. Nicholas Carr has called it dancing to the same drum, and suggests that social media, and the connection it is meant to foster, might benefit from being, well, less social and more distant. Finding quiet in a noisy world has also become increasingly difficult, with the same result: our bodies crave time free of stimulation that doesn't originate in the swelling sounds of mother nature. As an introvert, I've always needed substantial breaks from the clamorous pinging of contemporary life to be the person I am, so it's interesting for me to talk with extroverts who don't quite know what to do when the social connections that have always been so rewarding no longer energize like they used to.

Whether it be turbid skies or the electric hum of our media-saturated culture, I sometimes think the experience of awe is being replaced by a kind of leaden monoculture of our own making - the bland similitude of continuous light and sound edges out, on the largest of chronographic scales, variability, the raw material for creative living.

Thankfully, there is good news. Cities like Paris and Flagstaff are requiring building and business owners to dim the marquee after hours so that the real show can begin. Here's hoping that the trend continues and we might, once again, have a chance to orient ourselves.


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