Dark Knight in Shining Armour

By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, September 2010

The early city founders of Waterloo, living as they were in the late 19th century, a time before modern electricity as we know it, proceeded to enact a measure known as “the moonlight schedule”. Gas lit street lamps were turned off during a full moon to make use of its reflected light to illuminate the city streets. At that time there would have been nothing unusual about this action. Until the 20th century, people everywhere lived in tune with the natural world. Indeed, according to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), “All civilizations through recorded history have constellations woven into their culture.” Did those early founders have any inkling when they drafted their ‘moonlight schedule’ that they were on the cusp of change that would mark them as the last generation for whom the darkness of the night landscape was as familiar as the day?

These people and their ancestors understood night as a time of respite when work ended and reflection began. Night offered privacy, and a time to be refreshed. In her book, Brilliant, Jane Brox recounts the beginnings of “insistent light” when citizens worldwide were not altogether happy with unnatural light flooding their streets. “Lantern Smashing” became a strategy used by citizens of Paris, France as an act of defiance toward their government.

But lighting arrived and though we were robbed of the night sky, the incandescent light bulb created a soft atmosphere making it pleasant for people to walk at night, casting an attractive broad beam down onto the streets. But today because of sodium vapour lighting with a stark glare shining upward, current generations are the first for whom many have not seen a star filled sky and may never see the Milky Way.

The closest we in the city came to experiencing the true night sky was August 14, 2003 during the Northeast Blackout, a massive power outage that affected 55 million people. There were bright spots, however, in what may have been viewed as a catastrophe. Neighbours emptied their fridges and freezer of food that would spoil and ate together in backyard gardens. Then we all ventured out. It was midnight and the streets were alive with giddy walkers, stopping to greet, barely able to see each other in the dark night, we had to rely on our voices to carry our good intentions. And from the city centre the Milky Way, for once, was clearly visible. It was a dark night of rare magic.

My friend Ron spends a great deal of time thinking about the fact that we live with significant light pollution because of poorly designed outdoor lighting. He is forever lamenting the demise of the incandescent light bulb fitted with brass which is a better conductor of electricity than aluminum fittings. With brass there isn’t the excessive heat, making it a more efficient bulb.

He’s not alone in his desperate bid to cling to incandescent lighting. In April 2009 the otherwise calm, conservative town of Tunbridge Wells, England began a light bulb revolt, refusing en masse to adapt to energy saving light bulbs and purchasing in large quantities all remaining incandescent light bulbs before the official ban was enforced. The list of complaints include: the dim light, the time it takes to reach full brightness and fact that the new light bulbs contain mercury.

The act of brightening our dark streets with glaring light to the point where the night sky is no longer available for our viewing appears to be a decision lacking in clarity. A report from the RASC in 2008, entitled ‘Guidelines for Outdoor Lighting in Dark Sky Preserves’ reports that excessive outdoor lighting has a profound impact on the health and behavior of humans. Our circadian rhythms are negatively affected by constant light. Our sleep patterns, mood, physical strength and blood pressure, body temperature and heart rate are all synchronized by the day-night cycle. The release of melatonin which regulates other hormones and repairs the damage we do to our bodies daily, is dependent on night. When we don’t experience a dark night our bodies suffer and we have trouble fending off disease.

The most common reason attributed to night time lighting is to reduce crime. However the RASC reports that studies have disproven this assertion, stating there is no clear evidence that outdoor lighting reduces crime. In fact most property crimes occur in the day and violent crime typically occurs between people who know each other.

Brightening our night skies has made us into people who are unfamiliar with the dark night and hence we fear the dark. And the more we fear the dark, the more lights we think we need, when all we really need is to become enlightened about the cultural wasteland we have created of our night. Darkness is natural and necessary yet it has become an unknown and unfamiliar place for us. “The more light we’re accustomed to, the more we feel the need for security,” says Jane Brox. “For many of us now, abundant artificial light, not darkness, feels natural after the sun goes down.” And yet even as we ponder the need for turning back to the dark night of yore, it is a quest held only by western nations, since many in the world still live without adequate electricity, and in fact are not at all tied to the electric grid.

There is little doubt that as our fear of the dark unfamiliar night grows, so too grows the fear of our own personal darkness. Dark Nights of the Soul, Thomas Moore writes lovingly about Hekate, the night goddess who is at home in “dark alleys, corners and alcoves”. In your darkness, he says, “You may discover a part of you that is essential to your being.” For we all possess that darkness, it’s always present. Acknowledging that part of ourselves may be our greatest insight. Our inner darkness may hold gems that we repress or consciously suppress out of fear cutting ourselves off from this important piece of self. Hekate sanctions this mysterious dark inner world in each of us and in doing so, liberates us.

There is moonlight on the horizon however. In recent years a movement called ‘Starlight Reserves’ has claimed that we have “A right to starlight”. The aim is to uphold the integrity of the night sky by maintaining areas unpolluted with light, where natural night sky conditions are kept intact. The Starlight Reserves state that an unpolluted night sky should be considered, “an inalienable right of humankind equivalent to all other environmental, social, and cultural rights.” The town of Tekapo, New Zealand is presently waiting UNESCO’s approval on becoming the first Starlight Reserve. Other locations around the world that have expansive space to view the night sky away from light pollution are also proposing to become future sites of a ‘night park’.

I have become smitten with the night sky. And I find courage in Vincent Van Gogh’s reverence for the nocturnal, painting ‘Starry Night Over the Rhone’ from his sanatorium window at a time of great personal crisis; and later continuing with a series entitled “Study in the Night”. I am heartened by the stories of my father, moving through the years of blackouts with the rest of Europe’s citizenry during WWII. And then after the war, sitting among strangers under a new moon, waiting to cross from East to West Germany, hiding at the edge of a forest, the night sky a constant companion on an unfamiliar journey.

I know that I too feel a deep need for the companionship of Hekate, the moon in all its phases and perhaps one little incandescent light bulb.

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