Under Dark Skies: A Review Essay

By Michaela Keck

The End of the Night

On Fri­day, Octo­ber 16, our group of five – two mas­ter stu­dents, three bach­e­lor stu­dents, and I – set out from the Insti­tute of Eng­lish and Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Old­en­burg for a four-day excur­sion to the eco­log­i­cal field sta­tion of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pots­dam in Gülpe. This small vil­lage is locat­ed approx­i­mate­ly 70 kilo­me­ters north­west of Pots­dam, or cir­ca 85 kilo­me­ters north­west of Berlin, along the east­ern bor­der of the Nature Park and Dark Sky Pre­serve West­havel­land. Here, we want­ed to study, debate, and direct­ly expe­ri­ence dark­ness in an area that still afford­ed a phe­nom­e­non that is increas­ing­ly lost to our bright­ly illu­mi­nat­ed Euro­pean con­ti­nent: dark night skies. The plan for this long week­end was to have the after­noons set aside for text dis­cus­sions and to ven­ture out into the dark after the moon had set. The morn­ings were free to either recov­er from our noc­tur­nal activ­i­ties or to explore the wet­lands of our imme­di­ate surroundings.

Includ­ed in our con­sid­er­able amount of lug­gage – the eco­log­i­cal field sta­tion requires self-cater­ing – were three sem­i­nal texts for our eco­crit­i­cal stud­ies of dark­ness: Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Sav­ing Our Chil­dren from Nature Deficit Dis­or­der (2005); Paul Bogard’s The End of Night: Search­ing for Nat­ur­al Dark­ness in an Age of Arti­fi­cial Light (2013); and the chap­ter enti­tled “Ridge” from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (2007). Although the titles of the first two books express a sense of loss and there­fore sug­gest a yearn­ing for an ear­li­er, bet­ter, more “nat­ur­al” life, Louv and Bog­a­rd both inves­ti­gate the Anthro­pocene with an atti­tude that com­bines curios­i­ty, fas­ci­na­tion, and prag­ma­tism rather than regres­sion, nos­tal­gia, and moralizing.

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We spent most of our dis­cus­sion time on The End of Night, the struc­ture of which Bog­a­rd mod­els his jour­ney from the bright­ly lit urban cen­ters of Amer­i­ca (Las Vegas) and Europe (Lon­don and Paris) to nat­ur­al dark places on the Bor­tle scale, begin­ning with the num­ber 9 – for the bright inner-city night skies – and then count­ing the chap­ters down to num­ber 1 – for the “tru­ly dark site[s]” (9). Not only did Bogard’s book pro­vide us with an excel­lent prepa­ra­tion for our night­ly activ­i­ties, but it also relat­ed well to our own expe­ri­ences, not least because the weath­er did not allow for any stargaz­ing dur­ing our four-day stay – a dis­ap­point­ment that Bogard’s jour­ney in search for nat­ur­al dark­ness like­wise relates. For exam­ple, a sand­storm pre­vents his oppor­tu­ni­ty for supe­ri­or stargaz­ing through “the world’s newest major tele­scope” (201), the Gran Tele­sco­pio Canarias, on the island of La Pal­ma; and dur­ing his one and only night on the Isle of Sark, the world’s first Inter­na­tion­al Dark Sky Island, the clouds inter­vene with his planned stargaz­ing. Our group took con­sid­er­able con­so­la­tion in Bogard’s failed night sky expe­ri­ences, and I great­ly applaud my stu­dents for not allow­ing the per­sis­tent cloud cov­ers to spoil their enthu­si­asm for our stud­ies of dark­ness both dur­ing the day and night.

Notwith­stand­ing the ever-present lay­er of clouds, the excur­sion taught me a lot about dark skies or, as Bog­a­rd calls it, I indeed got to know dark­ness. Although I did not “get that feel­ing of infini­tude” (Berman qtd. in Bog­a­rd 34), that sense of dizzi­ness and falling that a tru­ly dark yet clear and three-dimen­sion­al night sky with its mul­ti­tude of stars may pro­vide, the dark­ness that I got to know on our noc­tur­nal walks is now a rich­er, more inti­mate, and also more val­ued part of my dai­ly life.

First of all, I learned the dif­fer­ence between “good see­ing” and “bad see­ing.” As the Amer­i­can astronomer Bob Berman explains to Bog­a­rd: “See­ing reflects the effect of tur­bu­lence in the earth’s atmos­phere on the sharp­ness and steadi­ness of images – good see­ing if the atmos­phere is steady and calm, bad see­ing if it is espe­cial­ly tur­bu­lent” (qtd. in Bog­a­rd 30). It was almost as if the nights with good and bad see­ing took turns dur­ing our excur­sion, and the dif­fer­ence between the two was quite remark­able. As some­body who has worn glass­es almost all her life, when­ev­er we had a night with bad see­ing, I felt inse­cure and as if I had to walk or be out­doors with­out my glass­es; where­as dur­ing the nights with good see­ing I felt com­fort­able and almost in full control.

The fact that the col­ors are reduced to white, sil­ver, black, and var­i­ous shades of grey at night was not unknown to me. This past spring, I had under­tak­en a moon­light walk in the Canyon­lands Nation­al Park, Utah, con­scious­ly expe­ri­enc­ing the bright and beau­ti­ful col­ors of the desert dur­ing the day and the absolute lack of these col­ors at night: all the flam­ing pinks and reds of the rock for­ma­tions were gone and instead showed their black out­lines against the shim­mer­ing whites of the sandy path I had cho­sen for my moon­light walk to the Mesa Arch where I was going to wait for the sun­rise. How­ev­er, the full moon washed out the dark­ness and thus reduced the col­or con­trasts con­sid­er­ably, where­as on our excur­sion we wait­ed until the moon had set. We even wit­nessed the turn­ing off of some of the lights in the sur­round­ing vil­lages and towns. As a result, the dark­ness and night vision that emerged were undis­turbed by the bright­ness of the moon, and there were very few light sources on the horizon.

For our first night, we had pre­pared our flash­lights by plac­ing trans­par­ent red paper over them so that our eyes could bet­ter adapt to and retain the night vision. The eyes’ adap­ta­tion to dark­ness is, as I learned in the course of the fol­low­ing nights, a slow process that requires time and patience, espe­cial­ly with aging eyes like mine. Once my eyes had adapt­ed, how­ev­er, I was amazed about the qual­i­ty of the night vision, espe­cial­ly when there was good see­ing. Indeed, as Bog­a­rd writes, “[t]he human eye has amaz­ing abil­i­ty to adapt to dif­fer­ent light­ing lev­els, includ­ing lev­els we nor­mal­ly think of as quite dim. While the human eye will nev­er match those of tru­ly noc­tur­nal […] ani­mals, in dim­ly lit sit­u­a­tions our pupil expands, our iris relax­es, and […] giv­en time to adapt to low light lev­els – lev­els that would allow the stars back into our skies […] – we actu­al­ly see fair­ly well” (72). Once we had tried and under­stood that, we actu­al­ly no longer used our flash­lights unless absolute­ly nec­es­sary, for exam­ple, when walk­ing on one of those nar­row, tree-lined coun­try roads, where the dense canopy of leaves enveloped us in a dark­ness that shut out the skies com­plete­ly; or when climb­ing up or down the stair­case of the ornithol­o­gists’ plat­form at the lake where we stayed for sev­er­al hours on two nights.

Based on our read­ings and the man­i­fold pho­tographs of night skies that have become so pop­u­lar in the last few years, I had imag­ined the dark­ness very dif­fer­ent­ly, almost glam­orous. How­ev­er, as we went out night after night and wit­nessed how lights were turned off and what a dif­fer­ence there is between good and bad see­ing, this ini­tial dis­ap­point­ment quick­ly van­ished. What is more, we expe­ri­enced how the night came alive.

a barred owl
a barred owl

One of the cen­tral aspects of dark­ness in The End of Night is what Bog­a­rd calls “the ecol­o­gy of dark­ness,” that is, the night’s bus­tle with “the basic hap­pen­ings that keep world bio­di­ver­si­ty alive” (131), be it plant or ani­mal life. These eco­log­i­cal pat­terns, as Bog­a­rd points out, have their own time sched­ule: “The moon ris­es when it ris­es, shoot­ing stars nev­er announce their shoot­ing – even the sounds and scents come when they want; you can’t just order them up” (127). Sim­i­lar to the slow adap­ta­tion process of the eyes, being out­doors at night requires patience and recep­tiv­i­ty to what­ev­er it is that comes alive. To Bog­a­rd, who trav­elled exten­sive­ly across the North Amer­i­can and Euro­pean con­ti­nents, there were moths, bats, wolves, the sounds of frogs and the barred owl; to us, who trav­elled 400 kilo­me­ters from the west to the east in our own coun­try, it was the enor­mous chat­ter of geese on the lake as one of their major stopovers on their long migra­tions – their noisy chat­ter­ing no longer makes me con­sid­er such a stopover a moment of rest, but more of a social gath­er­ing. Their chat­ter­ing was fre­quent­ly inter­rupt­ed by the calls of mal­lards and oth­er water­fowl, as well as the beat­ing of their wings as they took off and land­ed on the water’s surface.

All sounds are ampli­fied at night, even the noise of the falling rain­drops on my jack­et dur­ing our third night were more imme­di­ate, clos­er, and loud­er. The night com­ing alive also includes its man­i­fold scents. As Bog­a­rd describes it: “Dur­ing the day, ris­ing warm air car­ries the earth’s scents away, but as night tem­per­a­tures cool and night winds calm, those scents stay close to the ground, wait­ing like mes­sages for those crea­tures who can receive them” (137) – and receive them we did. Our first night was an inti­mate encounter with the fresh smells of the mead­ows of the wet­lands, in the midst of which the field sta­tion is locat­ed. The night air waft­ed scents of hay, at times rem­i­nis­cent of laven­der, towards us. Along the lakeshore, scents of wet grass alter­nat­ed with fra­grances of resin and pine, wet sand and the moist wood­en boards of the ornitho­log­i­cal plat­form. Both, sounds and scents are rich­er at night as the human sens­es are trans­formed and enhanced.

Most of us agreed that walk­ing about and expe­ri­enc­ing these nights togeth­er, gave us a sense of safe­ty. We felt secure as a group, but most of us would not have gone out at night by our­selves, let alone laid down in a wet mead­ow for an hour on a late Octo­ber night. The com­mon west­ern asso­ci­a­tion between light and safe­ty and, con­verse­ly, the fear of the dark in our Euro­pean and Amer­i­can cul­tures is, to my mind, one of the major nar­ra­tives that Bog­a­rd seeks to counter with his book. He does so by includ­ing expert voic­es and research data that tes­ti­fy to the mis­con­cep­tion that an increase of light­ing in our envi­ron­ment means reduced crim­i­nal activ­i­ties. Fur­ther­more, he points to the cul­tur­al bias­es that have con­sti­tut­ed – and still con­sti­tute – our con­cep­tions and sto­ries of the dark, which more often than not deval­ue, even demo­nize dark­ness. Inter­est­ing­ly enough, it did not take too long for our group to bring up the char­ac­ter­is­tic sce­nar­ios of the dark from slash­er movies and hor­ror films, and as we star­tled some sleep­ing cows with our red lights along the lake shore, some mem­bers of our noc­tam­bu­list group turned out to be almost as sur­prised as the cows, per­haps even frightened.

Bog­a­rd draws par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to our con­tem­po­rary cul­ture of fear, its obses­sion with secu­ri­ty and sur­veil­lance with­out, how­ev­er, triv­i­al­iz­ing indi­vid­ual anx­i­eties in the dark. This cul­ture of fear, he argues, rein­forces the com­mon assump­tions “night is dan­ger­ous and dark­ness a threat” (83). Richard Louv, too, express­es his con­cern about our con­tem­po­rary obses­sions with safe­ty, which he sees evi­denced by an exces­sive legal over­reg­u­la­tion. Like Bog­a­rd, he con­sid­ers the safe­ty-craze of our west­ern soci­eties – Amer­i­ca more so than Europe – as a symp­tom of an increas­ing detach­ment of indi­vid­u­als and soci­eties from any direct expe­ri­ence of and expo­sure to the non-human environment.

With The End of Night, Bog­a­rd wish­es to moti­vate us to know dark­ness rather than to fear it. I would argue that what makes his moti­va­tion suc­cess­ful, how­ev­er, is his cre­ation of a sub­lime dimen­sion of dark­ness, which – as one of my stu­dents per­cep­tive­ly not­ed – derives from the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the unceas­ing con­tact between human indi­vid­u­als and dark­ness through the com­bi­na­tion of sci­en­tif­ic and tech­no­log­i­cal knowl­edge and artis­tic as well as poet­ic imagery. With ref­er­ences to, for instance, Vin­cent van Gogh’s The Star­ry Night (1889), Gia­co­mo Balla’s Street Light (1909), as well as mul­ti­ple cita­tions from select­ed poet­ry and prose by nine­teenth- and twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry writ­ers (e.g. Hen­ry David Thore­au, Vir­ginia Woolf, Isaac Asi­mov, Wen­dell Berry, or Joseph Bruchac), Bog­a­rd strikes up a con­ver­sa­tion between artis­tic-poet­ic insights into dark­ness and the obser­va­tions of sci­en­tists and engi­neers (e.g. the French light­ing spe­cial­ist François Jousse, bat expert Mer­lin Tut­tle, the ini­tia­tor of the UNESCO dec­la­ra­tion of the human right to an unpol­lut­ed night sky, Cipri­ano Marin). He thus cre­ates an intrigu­ing trans­dis­ci­pli­nary and poly­phon­ic con­ver­sa­tion that turns into a major nar­ra­tive in itself.

This nar­ra­tive of a sub­lime dark­ness that unites many voic­es, mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives, and diverse fields of knowl­edge, makes The End of Night such a fas­ci­nat­ing and inspir­ing read. It places the human species of the Anthro­pocene not at the cen­ter of atten­tion, but always in rela­tion with larg­er cos­mo­log­i­cal forces at the same time as it artic­u­lates exis­ten­tial ques­tions. For exam­ple – and notwith­stand­ing the obstruc­tive cloud cov­er – on the Isle of Sark, Bog­a­rd expe­ri­ences one of those ecsta­t­ic moments of con­tact with dark­ness: “Tomor­row I will head to Guernsey, a bob­bing diesel-churned jour­ney, and find cobra­head fix­tures, unshield­ed lights, the insis­tent roar of the motors that rule our lives. But tonight in a field on Sark, I lie star­ing up – and around – at the star­ry sky, a man on his back in a field, all but dis­ap­peared” (190).

Although the expe­ri­ences of our lit­tle group in Gülpe were much more mod­est, I for my part depart­ed with­out any of the dis­ap­point­ment I had felt when first ven­tur­ing out into the dark. Yet it was very clear to me that, after all, we humans are def­i­nite­ly not a noc­tur­nal species.

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Michaela Keck teach­es Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Insti­tute of Eng­lish and Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Old­en­burg. Among her major research inter­ests are eco­crit­i­cism and nature writ­ing, wom­en’s lit­er­a­ture, and visu­al cul­ture. For fur­ther infor­ma­tion, see http://www.staff.uni-oldenburg.de/michaela.keck/.