Lights out

Published 4:14 pm Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A couple of years ago (November 2008) my friend John visited us here at Birdland from his home near Montgomery, AL. Millbrook, the little town where he and his wife settled, is very near the larger city of Montgomery. He came for a week-end of watching football, playing cribbage, and enjoying our mountain area. When the afternoon game was over, we grilled steaks and had dinner. I asked if he wanted to play cards or a board game. Instead, he wanted to venture out on the crisp autumn night to find a dark spot.

I was pretty sure I knew what he meant and drove us out to Pearson Falls Road, a treasured track of mine in our home area. About 2 miles into the drive, I stopped the van and sat in the peace, quiet, and darkness of the protected gravel road. Soon we all three got out, leaned against the van, and looked heavenward through the cleared slice in the surrounding forest.

There above us the stars hung like brilliant plums begging to be picked. The sight was a jaw dropper, inspiring silence and gratitude – quietly thrilling.

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For several minutes no words were spoken or necessary. Finally as we began to shiver in the cool air, John announced, OK, Im ready to go back now. I just wanted to be sure it was still up there. We can hardly see the stars in Millbrook. Theres so much light pollution from Montgomery that the sky is mostly just gray and the stars are hard to make out. Most of them arent even visible at all.

His comment reminded me of a trip I took across country in the mid-sixties, when I crossed the desert southwest for the first time. I had had the same experience of being able to see the stars in ways I hadnt been able to a very sweet episode in my life.

These days light pollution has become so pervasive that younger generations dont even understand what they are missing. When our two older children were young, we took them to a planetarium in Tampa one Sunday afternoon. When the lights went down to simulate the night sky from 2,000 years ago, a collective gasp and sighs could be heard all around the planetariums circumference, so breathtaking was the sight.

Perhaps you have seen pictures of the Earth taken from satellites. Those areas that are in darkness are peppered with specks and splotches of light, especially around cities and heavily populated areas. While these pictures have a certain amount of charm, the sad fact is that we live in a world that offers little in the way of appreciable night sky views and that deficiency grows daily.

Some of the most common contributors to light pollution are building lights (internal and external), advertising, commercial properties, factories, street lights, and sporting venues. We can get pollution from our neighbors porch light – termed light trespass.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that of the 4 to five million barrels of oil per day used to produce lighting in the country, approximately 2 million of those barrels are actually producing over illumination (or unnecessary light). Glare from too much light has implications for dangerous situations, especially for older citizens and nighttime driving.

Of the several types of light pollution the one I dislike most is skyglow, the appearance of a glow around populated areas caused by reflected over illumination. This effect reduces contrast and interferes with the ability to see into the depths of space. There are numerous studies that suggest that there are medical consequences to the phenomenon of light pollution also. These include, but are not limited to: headaches, fatigue, stress, risk of breast cancer, reduction of the production of melatonin, sleeplessness, and anxiety.

In 1988 a group headed by engineers and astronomers founded the International Dark-Sky Association. Their stated purpose is to protect and restore our skies to cleaner levels through education and the use of more efficient systems of illumination. There are over 5,000 members in this organization in 70+ countries.

As I write this, I recall just last night driving home from the market and seeing a proliferation of Christmas lights springing up all over the area where we live. Talk about over illumination!!

Oh, well, theres always a drive to Pearson Falls Road.

Don Weathington is a retired psychotherapist and business owner who lives in Gillette Woods at a place called Birdland.