I’m a cheerleader rooting for an underdog. I realized this during my favorite adventure of 2015 – where we played on mountains and deserts during the day, then curled up under a blanket of stars to watch meteors fall into our sky at night.
That underdog me and a few others are cheering for is the night sky.
My site and my coaching has always been focused on helping you have the body and mind for living a bigger, better, more robust life. Time to discuss one aspect of living that big life that is being overlooked by almost everyone.
I had picked up a book on that favorite trip, in the visitors’ center of Great Basin National Park, while I was there for the Perseid meteor shower. I had no idea how influential this book would end up being for me. I wish I’d written this book.
What follows is my not-so-subtle urging for you to start to think differently about the night, based on the influence that the most wonderful book, The End Of Night, by Paul Bogard, had on me.
Darkness Has Become An Afterthought
Darkness has become a ‘problem’. If we want to illuminate a thing, we can – and we will!
We’re ‘safer’ with more light (this is surprisingly untrue, as explored extensively in the book).
We’re ‘more modern’ with more light (our biology says otherwise, Bogard devotes a chapter to this, too).
Darkness is a fundamental component of our human survival…and it’s being blotted out by something of our own creation.
We light the night as if it’s day. And that is a huge problem.
Because extinguishing the night and its sky is akin to paving over the Grand Canyon.
We have a natural wonder above our heads and 99% of the population living in the continental U.S. and Western Europe lives in a place where they cannot truly see it.
The orangey-hazy sky glow of a normal urban sky is not a true night sky.
The grey-ish black sky of suburbia, with the Big Dipper and Orion the only constellations appearing to be hanging out each night, is also not a true night sky.
If I took you to the Grand Canyon and the only thing I showed you was the parking lot, would you feel like you got jipped?
You could feel that way about the night sky right now and your feelings would be fully fair.
When you see a dark sky – a truly dark one – where the Milky Way paints itself a broad white swath across the sky, M33 is visible to the naked eye, planets hang in the sky like car headlights the Universe forgot to turn off…when you witness that for the first time, it rocks you.
It bathes you in awe. Your jaw will hang open as you crane your neck skyward. You might even be moved enough to shed a tear or two.
Seeing a natural beauty like the night sky is not something you do once to cross off your bucket list.
The first time I ever saw a truly dark night sky was in Switzerland. We pulled the car over on the side of the road as we descended the mountain we’d be on. My eyes went up and my knees buckled as I began taking in the explosion of stars above my head.
After learning about the Bortle scale thanks to Bogard’s book, I now know this was likely a Bortle class 3 sky. While stunning to see, ‘stunning’ went to a whole other level when I gazed upon a Bortle class 2 during my time in Great Basin.
The Bortle scale was invented by John Bortle in 2001 as a ranking system for night skies, and it’s used to classify what type of sky you’re seeing when you look up.
A Bortle class 9 would be an inner-city night sky, with light pollution brilliantly lighting the sky and only the moon, planets, and brightest star clusters visible.
A Bortle class 1 sky contains a Milky Way whose Scorpius and Sagittarius regions cast visible shadows on the ground. Imagine that! The Milky Way casting shadows! (You might say, ‘not possible’, but indeed, a few of these skies still exist.)
Once you see a Bortle class 2 or even a 3, you’d be hard-pressed to ignore the feeling of needing to protect and preserve the night sky.
Part of being human, is having both darkness and light. But you probably live in a place where artificial light at night trespasses into your world, disrupting your night sky.
I’d never heard of ‘light trespass’ until Bogard introduces it in his book.
The neighbor’s security light that beams into your window. Flood lights left on all night at a school that shine out into the street and the yards of homes across the way. That’s light trespass.
If you can’t throw your lawn furniture in your neighbor’s yard, neither should you throw beams of light from your security headlight.
It’s not that dark sky supporters don’t wish for there to be no light, just that light is used at night in a more intelligent way: use only how much you’ll need, at the time that you need it, no brighter than necessary, and keep it fully shielded so it points downward.
That security headlight isn’t doing you much good anyways. Look at how your vision changes if you cover and direct the security light instead of letting it blaze out in all directions.
Night lighting has received the treatment so many things do – if some is good, more must be better. And like most things, these are good intentions that are misguided and misapplied.
In the case of night lighting, we’re using a sledge hammer to open a dollhouse door.
The intensity of gas station lighting at night. LED billboards that make your eyes ache with their shocking brightness.
Cobra head street lights that – because of their design – spew their light every which way, bouncing it off the ground back up into the atmosphere, and playing a role in the sky glow that makes it impossible to see most of the stars in the night sky.
All of these contribute to a night sky that is smudged out in much of the world.
Imagine if we took daytime and dimmed it down 1000%. This is, in reverse, what we’re doing to the night with the artificial light we’re using.
We’ve become so accustomed to the night being intensely lit with artificial light that anything less than “nearly as bright as Times Square” is too dark.
The reality is, your eyes were made to work in varying levels of darkness.
Just walk around outside at dusk and shortly thereafter. You can see just fine as your eyes adjust from using their cone photoreceptors to engaging more of the rod photoreceptors in your eye, thus giving you more sensitivity for night vision.
Go outside at night and spend at least thirty minutes away from any light. You’ll see that your vision gets better and better and what was ‘pitch dark’ when you first went out, becomes ‘readily visible’ the longer your eyes get to adjust to the dark.
In terms of physiology, you’ve got what you need to see well at night, without heaps of artificial light.
A Case For Contrast
This was one of the most influential parts of the book for me. Bogard does an incredible job of showing you how contrast between light and dark is not only beautiful – as in the case of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris – but also more effective for seeing at night, and saving a city money.
Whether you care about saving money, making a pretty space with pretty lights, or using your human biology for maximum effect – there’s something in this part of the book for you.
Bogard takes you on walking tours of various large and small cities at night, including Paris. You’re there with him as he describes what he sees, and what the cities lighting experts he speaks to intended as they installed various kinds of light around their city.
It reminded me of my visit to Prague, years ago now. It was the first weekend of December. Christkindl market was in full effect in the main square.
We drank mulled wine and had gone to an evening choir concert in one of Prague’s gothic churches. It was frigid in that church, so cold that no one removed their hat or coat. As more attendees streamed in, we squeezed ever-closer together to those in the pew with us – I couldn’t have been the only one grateful for a little more body heat to keep warm.
When the concert ended we streamed out into the real beauty of Prague – the city at night. Like Paris, Prague’s night lighting seems to have been thought of, considered, and done with a careful hand.
I think the only reason I didn’t notice night lighting in Paris is because my roommate and I were too busy trying to get the crepe maker to give us a free crepe to notice anything else. He eventually gave us the crepe. It was splendid.
Walking up cobblestone streets in Prague, past tiny shop after tiny shop, the only light a small lamp at the doorway to each home. Despite no cobra head street lights overhead like you’d find everywhere in the U.S., we had no trouble seeing to make our way up the street.
We neared the castle wall and – I remember this so clearly – a soft glow of light was coming from around the corner of the wall. With it, the angelic sounds of a youth choir giving a concert.
We rounded the corner to see the choir singing under a gentle light streaming from somewhere above them. The subtle lighting, their voices dancing off the stone walls holding up the homes and shops around us – it was enchanting.
Lighting done well is subtle, functional, and uses contrast to its advantage.
It’s ok if there are shadows amidst the light. They’re as much a part of the light spectrum as ‘full light’ and ‘no light’ are the ends of the spectrum.
[Tweet “There’s beauty in the shadows”]
Using contrast means there will be areas that are more lit, areas that are shadowy, and areas that are dark.
This is solid advice for outdoor lighting, and I also started considering it with my indoor lighting, too.
I began noticing how I’d move around my apartment. As I entered a room, I’d flip the light switch on even if I was only entering to grab my computer charging cord and then leave, flipping the light off as I left. I’d do this even if there was light coming from the hallway that was spilling into the room I was entering.
Why was I turning lights on when the room already had some light in it? Because it had become a habit and I was being lazy with my eyes.
I started consciously leaving lights off that previously I’d have turned on. I began considering which of the lights in each room needed to be on. I brought my lamps out of storage and used those to create contrast around the room, instead of blaring the overhead light at all hours of the evening.
In doing this, I realized my eyes work just fine in dim lighting.
I learned that almost everything I had been flipping light switches on for, I could do without the extra overhead light.
I started realizing that ‘just enough’ lighting that is well-placed to enjoy whatever activity I’m doing after dinner made it far easier to feel sleepy by a reasonable time each evening.
And as for outdoor lighting? Everywhere I go now, I notice it.
Once you notice night lighting done well, it’s hard to ignore when you see it done poorly.
Evolving How We Do Things
In the 70’s America got its shit together and made an effort to stop littering all over our country, with the Keep America Beautiful non-profit group. And the impact was visible as Americans stopped throwing trash on the ground and started cleaning up our land.
If you saw someone today leave all their trash behind after a picnic, a la Don Draper in Mad Men, you’d likely be appalled. Littering is in poor taste, and we can (and did!) do better. The same is true for night lighting.
Imagine if the U.S. had never stopped throwing the volume of trash being thrown on the ground back then? It would be a different world today.
If no one does anything about light pollution at night, it’s realistic for the children of the future to be born into a world where no one has seen the Milky Way painted across the sky.
This isn’t about making the whole world pitch dark at night. There isn’t a night sky advocate around who thinks big cities like New York City are going to eventually have a true dark sky above them. But if big cities don’t make changes, the light pollution creep that is happening now from their lights will continue to push into the rural areas, eliminating our last true dark skies.
By big cities starting to make changes to their night lighting, they can start to ease the orange glow that is seen for miles and miles outside of the city limits, and improve slightly their urban sky overhead.
If suburban and rural cities improve their night lighting, they will begin to get back many more of the stars that are there but that can’t compete with light pollution.
If these changes happen, it’s realistic that you wouldn’t need to drive very far out of a city in order to see a Bortle class 3 or 4 sky.
But if we don’t protect and preserve it, there will be nothing to see very soon.
Last year for the Perseid meteor shower (it’s one of the biggest and summer skies work in your favor for viewing), I’d driven west about twenty minutes from my house in the suburbs of Chicago.
I parked on the side of a country road as there was nowhere else to pull over, and walked off into the tall grass to lay down a blanket and watch the sky. A cop came by to tell me I couldn’t be there. sigh. fine. <grumble, grumble>
I said then that ‘next year, I’m going to be somewhere incredible for the Perseid meteor shower.’
I didn’t yet know that I’d decide to leave Illinois and had no clue that Utah would be where I’d end up. I just knew that I was prepared to fly, drive, and hike my way to an epic locale for sky-watching during the meteor shower.
When August rolled around this year, it was a few weeks before the meteor shower and Kyle and I had been all over Utah and Idaho together already, but always on trips he’d planned. He suggested I plan the next one and right about the same time, my airbnb hosts had regaled me with stories of their trip years prior out to Great Basin.
“You gotta go to Great Basin, Kate.”
“Some of the darkest night skies in North America…”
Which is how we found ourselves a four hour drive from Salt Lake, out in the desert, up on a mountain, exploring the constellations in between watching the Perseid meteor shower drop long-lasting streaks of meteors into our sky.
It was so epic.
And epic adventure (whatever that means to you) is one of the boxes that needs to be ticked semi-regularly if you want a bigger, better, more robust life.
I hope you’ll pick up Paul Bogard’s book, The End Of Night, and get excited with me about the night sky. I’m concluding with a portion of the Wendall Berry poem Bogard used a few times in the book. It made me pause and consider it every time I read it, and it’s quickly become something I’ve adopted to other areas of my life:
“To go into the dark with a light, is to know light.
To know the dark, go dark.” -Wendall Berry
*Thank you to Paul Bogard for allowing me to use a photo from his book, and thank you to all the photographers who know how to shoot the night sky. Because of you, we can enjoy the beauty of the night in between trips out to truly dark sites.