8/15/2013 - The rude rays of the sun blemish the author’s picture in The End of Night, but it’s the perfect illustration for Paul Bogard’s book, a sobering yet buoyant examination of how light has driven darkness out of modern life at significant cost.
As a topic, this is not new. In 1928, decades before rural America was widely electrified, Henry Beston wrote in The Outermost House, “To-day’s civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night.” Bogard himself has published an anthology on the subject, Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark.
But there’s always room for more musing on a compelling subject, particularly when one is as eloquent and educated as Bogard. Part memoir, part journalism, part poetry, The End of Night is a pilgrimage of man who sets out to discover what incessant illumination is doing to the planet and its inhabitants.
The upshot: nothing good.
In 2001, Bogard writes, an amateur astronomer named John Bortle created a now-widely-used scale to classify the darkness of skies. On the Bortle scale, Class 9 is what you see in a city; Class 5, the suburbs; Class 2, “truly dark.” Class 1 — forget it; the typical American will never see it. Increasingly bright satellite images over the past few decades show how darkness is disappearing in the U.S.; how, even at 2 or 3 a.m., our skies are tarnished by the light of parking lots, shopping centers, sports facilities and street lamps. (In the U.S., “some 60 million streetlights blaze all night,” he writes.)
Three thousand stars should be accessible to the human eye, yet most people can only see a fraction of them. In Bogard’s travels, he meets someone whose mother, visiting from the city, asked, quite sincerely, “What are all the white dots in the sky?” They were stars. Says one astronomer Bogard interviews, “Everyone’s grown up in cities. We have no idea that it can be any other way. People no longer realize that you should be seeing thousands of stars.”
But while Bogard, fascinated by the night sky since his childhood in Minnesota, mourns our collective inability to see the Milky Way, he’s equally troubled by the other ills that plague a society that is perpetually and artificially lit. Among them: the physical maladies that affect third-shift workers whose schedules interrupt circadian rhythms (the World Health Organization considers the night shift a carcinogen); the disruption of migratory patterns, and the deaths of tens of thousands of birds as artificial light and structures disrupt ancient patterns; the inability of humans to distinguish rational from irrational fears.
Bogard confesses to an innate fear of the dark, even as he argues and acts against it, plunging into dark places around the world, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of astronomers and witches, sometimes in the presence of mountain lions. “Safety and security” is the reason given for most light pollution, but The End of Night convincingly argues that darkness need not be synonymous with fear; that in fact, if we learn to embrace the darkness, to adopt its rhythms and learn its lessons, our lives will be pleasantly full and less fearful.
The topic of darkness in an over-lit world is so compelling, and Bogard’s research so solid, that it seems almost unnecessary for the writing to be so good. The End of Night is the rare book that’s even better than it needed to be. We learn something on every page, meet fascinating people through Bogard’s travels, and emerge with ideas on how to not only improve the planet, but enhance our own journeys on it. Nothing against libraries, but this is a book that’s worth buying. Save the money for it by turning off some lights. A+ —Jennifer Graham