Fourth Estate, 2014, pbk, 336 pp
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
For several years, I lived in a remote part of rural Australia, hundreds of miles from the nearest city. At night, in our little valley, at those times when the moon wasn’t big enough to dim them, we used to sit and gaze at the stars. I can still remember the feeling of utter, spine-tingling awe and amazement I felt when I first saw that vast, thick, three-dimensional sky-carpet of stars beyond stars beyond stars, with the Milky Way splashed right across it like—as its name suggests—a twisting stream from an overturned milk bottle.
I have travelled a lot in my life, and camped in some wild places, including some of the USA’s more remote National and State parks, but I have never seen skies like that anywhere else, either before or since. Most people never do. In a major city you would be lucky to see more than three stars, even on a moonless night. That is what led Paul Bogard to start researching for this book.
His own first experience of the ‘real’ night sky was as a young adult at the edge of the Sahara Desert. I saw the sky that night in three dimensions, he writes. The sky had depth, some stars seemingly close and some much farther away, the Milky Way so well defined it had what astronomers call ‘structure,’ that sense of its twisting depths. He started to realize that as populations and cities grow, artificial lighting proliferates and brightens, and more and more of our planet’s natural darkness is stolen from us, fewer and fewer people are going to be able to have a full experience of the night sky.
By lighting up the planet the way we do, not only are we cheating ourselves and our descendants out of an experience that should be their birthright—but which, after a few generations, nobody is going to know is even possible—but because all living beings evolved on a planet where nights are dark, we are unthinkingly disrupting countless ecological systems and cycles that have existed since life on Earth began.
In 2001, amateur astronomer John Bortle devised a system for measuring light pollution that orders skies from 9 (brightest) to 1 (darkest). The night sky I saw in rural Australia and this author saw in the Sahara would have ranked a class 1 or 2 on the Bortle scale. But sadly, in most of what we call the ‘developed’ world, even rural nights rarely dip below a Bortle 3. So as he was planning this book, Bogard took a pilgrimage around his own country—the USA—starting at Bortle 9 Las Vegas and aiming to end up at whatever place might be dark enough to be a Bortle 1. If indeed there was such a place still to be found. He hoped there would be. He also talked to dark sky enthusiasts in other countries.
The book chronicles his journey and his conversations with those he met along the way, including astronomers, who face increasing challenges from light pollution, and urban planners who are starting to look at how we might light our cities and towns more subtly and sustainably in order to preserve the darkness our bodies—and our souls—actually need for good health. There is, as Bogard points out, no real need to make a gas station forecourt even brighter at night than in the daytime. You only need to see the numbers on the pump.
The good news is that awareness of these issues is growing and there is a burgeoning Dark Sky movement that aims not only to conserve energy but to restore to all of us—and to the more-than-human world—our natural heritage of peaceful, restorative, nocturnal darkness. Hopefully, this book will help to swell the ranks of folk like me who want our glorious, starry nights back.