Last week our volunteer light-up crew put up Christmas lights in and around our condo building, something they do every year. For centuries, people have displayed special lights at Christmas, a clever tradition designed to offset the darkness of winter. It’s the one of the few Christmas customs I enthusiastically embrace.
Like many people of my generation I grew up on a farm, in my case, an isolated Canadian prairie homestead. Growing up in the 1940s and 1050s, before electricity found its way to our outpost home, I woke up in the dark during winter, and went to bed in the dark. The only light available to us was a kerosene lamp, a flashlight, and the light from our constantly burning wood stove.
The light that illuminated our lives
We read in the circle of light around our kitchen table, and we played outside in lantern light, sometimes using battery-powered flashlights to find our way around the house and farmyard. In summer, we experienced the northern phenomena of 17 hour daylight, but on winter nights, when darkness lasted 17 hours, we played outside by flashlight or moonlight, using the light from the farmhouse windows as our beacon. On clear nights, we could look up and see millions of stars in the night sky, delighting in the wonders of the constellations and the Milky Way.
Once a week, we would go into town, where we would see the miracle of electricity shine from the shop windows—indoor lights brighter and sharper than we could ever have imagined. At Christmas, there were colored lights, single strands of spun sugar arranged gingerly on lampposts or store fronts, glowing faintly through the falling snow.
But it’s only decades later, during my seventies, that I fully appreciate the real miracle—the night sky, illuminated by millions of celestial bodies, unobscured by the interference of artificial light.
The miracle of electric light
Electricity was discovered during the early 1800s, and came into common use during the early 1900s. Since then, humans have proliferated every corner of the planet with electric light, and gravely affected our capacity to see the stars.
Today, I learn that only 20% of the world’s population has ever seen a star-filled night sky. With most people living in cities, where artificial light dominates, 80% of the world’s population has never seen the Milky Way. Fewer than a dozen stars can be seen on a clear night, although in rural areas, 2,500 stars may be visible. In the suburbs, where artificial light is less dominant, only 200 to 300 can be seen.
I am stunned by these statistics, realizing how quickly, in the short span of the history of mankind, the sight of millions of stars, our connection to the universe, has been taken away. It’s unthinkable to me that we have subjected our planet to what we now call light pollution, and forever changed the sky as we used to see it.
How some are trying to save the sky
In a response to a concern among astronomers world wide, two photographers, Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan, have traveled North America, exploring the country’s magnificent night skies. In an attempt to document the sky where dark prevails, they have prepared a book and time-lapse video where people can view what they can no longer see in areas where they live.
Reclaiming the night skies the earth enjoyed for billions of years, and revealing to us the “vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space,and the austerity of stars.”, the pair are working to make us more aware of the universe we inhabit, saying:
“It’s so easy to take for granted, or just say that the night sky is a pretty thing you can live without, but we started to talk about it and realized the connection is more profound than just beauty.”
Their project, and more information about the astounding book and time-lapse video can be found here.
Another astronomer Dr. Charles Liu , an astrophysics professor at the University of New York’s College of Staten Island, is, like most astronomers, concerned that star-gazers are finding viewing the night sky more difficult. He understands the significance of this, and maintains that there are many rewards for scanning the skies on any given summer night, saying, “It gives you a sense of where you are in the universe.”
You can find more about his work here.
And, back in Victoria
In my corner of the world, across the Victoria harbor, where I live, I can see the British Columbia Parliament buildings and the famous Empress Hotel. These iconic buildings, usually arrayed in millions of clear lights, are now wreathed in colored Christmas lights, sparkling festively across the water. It’s breathtaking, and I never tire of looking at it.
But the pleasure is bittersweet—I’m constantly reminded of the view I had as a little girl, stepping out of the house and looking up on a clear night, seeing the celestial wonders of the night. And on a winter’s night, seeing the Aurora Borealis, pulsing and snapping across the sky, its display an expression of the mystery and majesty of the universe.