"For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream."
— Vincent van Gogh
"Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight; I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight."
— English nursery rhyme
Often I've wondered about children who grow up without stars over their heads. They are told they are there, but in big cities with powerful sources of ambient light, the night sky is all but obliterated. Think of New York, most of Los Angeles, and of course, Las Vegas.
While there might be a scattering of the brightest stars visible on clear evenings, could those children have even an inkling of the true magnificence of the heavens above? Even the clarity that was once common in Death Valley is slowly being degraded from the spill of light from Vegas.
But what is the importance of the night sky? And what can we learn from an experience with the stars?
First and foremost, it helps us establish our place in the universe. One tiny light, our small planet floats amid a sea that is measureless. In the darkest of skies, starlight appears to spread infinitely, billions of billions of stars — as Carl Sagan once said. We have no measure of the numbers, only wild guesses as with succeeding year, our abilities to perceive/to see farther and farther increase our grasp of space.
To the ancient Greeks, the night sky was filled with patterns of stars that formed constellations. They named them for warriors, deities and heroes. American Indians believed they were born of stars. The entire precept of astrology, with predictions and analysis of behavior and personality, is based on astral positions at the time of one's birth.
Sailors — before the advent of the compass — used the stars to find their way to sea and home again. Long before the appearance of GPS systems, there were gnomon or sun-shadow disks that operated like a sundial, an Arabian kamal, in the middle ages an astrolabe, and eventually the sextant. Navigation, or a position on the planet, was possible by measuring distances between stars.
We have grown up on starlight, and we are losing it — as well as darkness — more rapidly than any of us can really imagine. And slowly, we are coming to terms with what a loss of darkness ultimately means to our quality of life.
We are diurnal creatures, with eyes that adapt to light and dark. We have biorhythmic seas that follow tides that follow the moon, that follow the night sky. Studies have shown that sleeping in a room with any ancillary light disturbs sleep patterns, causing increased bodily stress — and cranky human beings. There are also findings that link increased breast cancer in women to nighttime brightness.
But we are not the only ones disturbed.
A 2008 issue of National Geographic ran "The End of Night: Why We Need Darkness," which included a discussion that migrating birds reveal that light can act as a magnet, and that songbirds and seabirds are commonly "captured" by searchlights on land or marine oil platforms, and circle in the thousands until they drop. Sea turtles require darkness for nesting, and increasingly are unable to find a beach without artificial light.
As an awareness of the need for darkness increases, cities are slowly taking themselves to task. In response from complaints by the Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff made efforts more than 50 years ago to protect their view by reducing light pollution. In 2001, the city was declared the first International Dark City, and those efforts have spread across the globe. Even the Czech Republic has committed itself to decreasing light spill.
In my heart of hearts, I would be thrilled to see Laguna Beach named as a Dark City, although this may not be possible with our neighboring communities. It is impossible to deny the eerie glow of light that pours over the top of Alta Laguna Park from Irvine and beyond.
There are actions each household can take. For starters, use lower watt bulbs in all outdoor lighting or even switch to low voltage. Angle lights down, not out or up, to stifle light spill. Reduce and/or eliminate spotlights. And when installing new lighting or changing bulbs or direction, be conscientious of your neighbors. No one wants or needs the glare someone else's light shining on their home.
If you have a chance, travel away from light pollution. Lay back on the ground and fill your heart and mind with wonder. We are so small and there is so much. I think it adds great perspective to everything that we do.
CATHARINE COOPER loves wild places. She can be reached at email@example.com.