My parents were weird. Their cavalier and, to me, heartless and shameful rejection of suburban life meant that we often lived out in the country, even when my father had a job with nearby split-level ranch homes where people lived the way that the television taught us was the appropriate way for people to live.
Not for our family. We had houses literally at the end of paved roads, on mountains, without streetlights. Sometimes without neighbors. So I grew up more or less accustomed to the dark. It was on another odd trek with my family when I learned what the dark really was, out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, to see the Milky Way as it really should be seen, splashed across the sky so brightly that it cast a shadow.
I was, in retrospect, very lucky to have these experiences with the dark. Years later, I attended a cousin’s wedding at our family manse on the New England coast. My cousin’s bridesmaids and I arrived from the airport together in the late evening; gazing up, I said, “Look at the Milky Way!” One of the bridesmaids, an intelligent woman from Texas, said “That’s the Milky Way?”
She had never seen it before.
And that is a very common phenomenon, says Paul Bogard, author of the newly released The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. Many, many millions of Americans have never really seen the night sky. They don’t know what the Milky Way is because they have never seen it, or any but the brightest among the thousands of stars that most people used to take for granted.
Bogard gave an exceptional talk last week at the Paseo Verde Library in Henderson. Some of his stories, anecdotes from his research and his book, were funny, some disturbing, some a bit of both. One of them, he recalled: a woman, visiting family, who seriously asked what those bright points of light in the sky were. Bogard’s look at the light and the dark is a fascinating exploration of what we, with our technology, have done to the fundamental clock of our lives, the circadian pattern that once ruled us. He is a very accomplished writer and storyteller, and one of the things that will be of interest to CityLife readers is that both the light and the dark are exemplified by places in Nevada. The light, of course, by Las Vegas, a source of light pollution that spills from our urban area even into those very dark areas nearby: Great Basin National Park, in east-central Nevada, considered one of the darkest areas in the continental United States, and Death Valley National Park in California. Both are great for viewing the Milky Way, the planets of our solar system and the stars. But you can still see the glow from Las Vegas. Bogard structures his book backward, starting from our town as a representative of the brightest night areas, on through nine levels of increasing dark, to the very best places to experience the awesome majesty that is our universe at night, where you can see the structure of, and our place in, the great spiral galaxy that is our home. Along the way, he refers to the suspected impacts on human health and environmental quality that artificial light appears to have, and the relatively modest steps we could take to limit those negative impacts.
Bogard weaves his story of the rapid growth of electric lighting, which, incredibly, has only been with us for little more than a century. It has been a century that has seen the death of the dark around the world. Here and there, you can still find a place on land, or especially at sea, where you can experience the wonder of the dark. But those places are disappearing very quickly. Bogard’s book reminds us of what we are losing.
THE END OF NIGHT: SEARCHING FOR NATURAL DARKNESS IN AN AGE OF ARTIFICIAL LIGHT, Paul Bogard, Little Brown, 325 pages.