In his recently released paean to darkness, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, author Paul Bogard (@PaulBogard) deploys his literary and persuasive talents to open our eyes to the evils of light pollution, our minds to the perils of bad lighting, and our hearts to the beauty of dark night skies. He succeeds on all counts.
Structuring his book with nine chapters to mirror the gradations of the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, Bogard takes us on a worst-to-best tour of the North American and European night, starting (where else?) in Las Vegas, in the glare of the forty-billion candlepower lightbeam cast skyward from the apex of the Luxor Casino, and in New York City’s Times Square, a place so bright it utterly obliterates the stars. From those over-illuminated start points, Bogard leads us through a usually charming, occasionally appalling series of Bortle-scale based literary, physical, ecological, and health-inspired peregrinations, ruminations, and digressions as he wanders the night skies of London, Paris, Florence, Walden Pond, Cape Cod, his Minnesota roots, the southwestern deserts and the Grand Canyon, the Channel Island of Sark, Acadia National Park, the Canary Islands, Death Valley, and the Black Rock Desert. Along the way, he encounters a plethora of dark sky aficionados and activists, finally bringing us to a starry climax at an astronomy festival in Great Basin National Park, beneath one of the darkest night skies in the United States.
The End of Night is a fascinating read, built around a topic most of us never pause to consider – the beauty of the night – and tragically, considering the state of modern light pollution, never or seldom get to experience. Bogard quickly sensitizes readers to the perils and evils of artificial light and light pollution, and he makes a strong science-based case that darkness is actually good for us—as in good for our health–since thousands of generations of evolution adapted us to spend half our lives in darkness. Through the eons of human history, every member of our species experienced the profound, three-dimensional glitter of the stars. That isn’t true anymore. We didn’t start losing the night until just over 140 years ago, when, on April 29, 1869, Cleveland, Ohio installed the first electric streetlamp. Until then, true darkness held the night skies of even the most urban places. Ever since, the developed and industrialized world has been gradually losing the night.
And we lose another precious glimmer every night.
I was in the Army from 1984-1992, and I remember a soldier who’d grown up in an inner-city tilting his head back during an all-night maneuver and saying in a wonder-tinged voice, “Sir, I just can’t get over all these Goddamned stars.”
He’d had no idea there were so many until the Army made him do night maneuvers.
As for me, I first saw the Southern Cross from a hasty fighting position I’d dug just before sunset during one of the first days of Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama, and in my subsequent wanderings I’ve been fortunate to experience some truly amazing nights. I’ve contemplated the Milky Way’s wild celestial ribbon dancing over the sand dunes of Arabia’s Empty Quarter, gazed on the Magellenic clouds from the dark winter fastness of the southern Patagonian ice cap, and stood in speechless awe beneath the starry infinity that rides over Bolivia’s Uyuni desert, treasured memories all, ones that engender emotions every human should experience, but thirty pages into Bogard’s book I stepped outside to assess the quality of the night from my backyard in Walnut Creek, California.
Predictably, it’s not good.
A streetlight casts ugly yellow glare into the best part of my property, the glow of lights from the suburb around me obscures all the faint stars, and the Milky Way shows but a hint of its glory. Bortle class 5 or 6, I’d hazard—“suburban sky” or “bright suburban sky.”
I wish it were darker.
So does Bogard, and in The End of Night he dispenses much advice on what we might do to improve the quality of our nights.
By way of fabulous coincidence, last Friday, when I was into the final chapters of Bogard’s book, my twelve-year old son Ryan and I were in Yosemite, and we attended an excellent night skies presentation by astronomer, author, artist, and self-styled night sky ambassador Tyler Nordgren. Bogard quotes Nordgren several times in his book, and one of Nordgren’s beautiful WPA-styled night skies posters graces The End of Night’s cover.
Inspired, Ryan and I spent the next night sprawled in our sleeping bags among the sagebrush at the mouth of Lee Vining Canyon, between the eastern gate of Tuolumne Meadows and Mono lake, and it was a wonder to have my son snuggled against me while we watched the slowly pinwheeling stars and the occasional bright streaks of the Perseid meteor shower.
We need to learn to love darkness. It’s part of who we are.
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- The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, by Paul Bogard (@PaulBogard)
- the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale
- One of the resources Bogard continually mentions is The International Dark-Sky Association.
- Tyler Nordgren’s website, which is interesting
- Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks; by Tyler Nordgren; on Twitter he’s @NightSkyPark)
- Little, Brown and Company published The End of Night; @littlebrown