Thursday, July 12, 2012

Night Lights

Night sky over Devil's Tower, Wyoming

When I was a kid, my mom used to leave our 15 watt hall light on at night (so none of us would take a header down the stairs en route to the bathroom). Since I was afraid of the dark, I'd sleep with my bedroom door open to let in all the luminescence I could from that dim bulb.

I created a character who's afraid of the dark for my Twins series. In researching it, I found that achluophobia is defined as a fear of the dark severe enough to be pathological. That implies that lesser fears of the dark are considered by society to be normal. Makes sense. We're taught from an early age to associate light with goodness, security and clarity. Darkness is seen as dangerous and evil. When we enter a dark room, even if it's a familiar space that we know with eyes closed, our first instinct is to turn on a light.

I recently heard an NPR program called "Lost in 'The City Dark'" about light pollution and the loss of the night sky. These days streetlamps, digital billboards, and flood-lit buildings and bridges have made it impossible to see stars in cities around the world.

My dad, brother and I used to stargaze a lot. From our backyard on very clear nights, you could see a faint, fuzzy Milky Way crossing the sky over our house. My brother had a small telescope, so we could check out the craters of the moon, rings of Saturn, moons of Jupiter, the Andromeda galaxy and the teeny nebulae of Orion. I bought a Scholastic book about constellations and learned to identify every one I could see from my yard. We'd stay up late for meteor showers, lunar eclipses, and the occasional comet visitation.

My current neighbors all have big spotlights. The streetlamps have brighter bulbs. The shopping malls on either side of town create a permanent glow on the horizon. All but the brightest stars are now veiled.

I just heard about an exhibit at a large botanical garden not far from me. They've set up colored lighting fixtures--I guess you could say light sculptures, in some cases--all over the grounds for night tours. A few of my friends have oohed and aahed about it, but my first thought was to morn the fact that no one will be able to see the lightning bugs, or moonlight on the blossoms, or, of course, the stars.

I've gotten over my fear of the dark. In fact, I like it. Darkness is energy-efficient. And as Charles Dickens said, it's cheap--always welcome in this economy. Yet we overdo lighting--we keep wasting fuel to keep our childhood fears away.

When I evoke memories of the most memorable night lighting displays I've seen, I think of the starry sky over the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and over Badlands, and over the little out-of-the-way-town of State Line, PA. I remember the first time the sky was so clear I could see individual stars of the Milky Way, at Kiwanis Girl Scout Camp. I remember my first night hike, when I found, to my surprise, that starlight was all I needed to see the trail after my eyes adjusted.

As filmmaker Ian Cheney on NPR program said, we don't raise our heads and look up anymore. We look down, at our phones, at our artificial lights. Cheney makes the case that "in losing the night sky, we're not only losing something beautiful, we're losing this reference point, a sense of perspective. And to think that most kids now will grow up without that perspective, without a sense of our place in space."

If you've got kids, please take them stargazing, and often.

Elena (who still has and uses that Scholastic book)

No comments:


Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors