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The delights of darkness (even in March)
Human and planetary well-being requires darkness as well as light
While it’s getting brighter, March is a time of year - in the northern hemisphere, that is - when spring can seem a long way off. There’s still snow on the ground in Great Barrington, and in London, too, I hear. I long for light and warmth.
So it came as a bit of a shock to read about a town that deliberately turns out their lights. While I’ve written and published about light pollution, I had never thought about darkness as something to be appreciated and enjoyed. But it makes sense: light and dark are the yin and yang of the natural world, and human rhythms.
It’s so dark in Moffat, in fact, that it’s almost as if the power has been cut. And it has. Sort of.
Inspired by the town’s Dark Sky recognition, two of Moffat’s lifelong residents, friends Carol Rogers (Sarah’s mother) and Evelyn Atkins, conceived of something much more radical.
After spearheading the opening of a town astronomy center in 2021, “We caught the darkness bug,” says Atkins. “We wanted to try—if only for two weeks a year—to live almost entirely without artificial light.” The pair believed the experiment could show that natural darkness is good for health and wellbeing, and even helps bring a community together. It could also, they reasoned, become Moffat’s newest claim to fame.
I can’t say I see this happening in Great Barrington. We have remarkably little crime (we’re a bit of a joke, even in our own county, for tractor- and cow-related police incidents), but many residents are New Yorkers who are used to bright lights all night long.
Moffat now turns off nearly all of its public lights for two weeks each winter. It’s an experiment to rediscover life before artificial lighting stole the darkness from us. Town officials encourage residents to turn off porch lights and even interior lamps. They call it the “dark weeks.”
Some neighbors love to walk on dark nights. Others just hate the excessive bright street lights near their homes. And some are worried about public safety and prefer well-lit streets, and have lights installed around their houses. (These vary a good deal: some are bright enough to blind walkers and drivers, and no doubt prowling foxes and deer. Others are quite modest, and motion sensitive.)
I have been one of the cityfolk, happy to walk every winter evening around the West Village but never venturing out after dark here in Great Barrington, because the roads have potholes and sidewalks and streetlights are inconsistently placed. I hadn’t realized what I was missing, or that I was being a complete wimp.
The point of all this, of course, is to experience darkness and to see the stars. Here’s a NASA image of the night sky we used in Big History, Small World. This is what the sky actually looks like. For the first time, I’m thinking seriously about where I can find a telescope and see this for myself.
But why would darkness be good for us?
Here’s the abstract from the chapter on “Light Pollution and Biological Systems” from the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability, written by several eminent scientists:
Artificial light, particularly outdoor lighting at night, disrupts the mechanisms plants and animals have evolved to cope with and use day–night and seasonal cycles. It affects behaviors such as preparation for winter, predator evasion, nighttime navigation, and migration, threatening the health and survival of life forms, from simple aquatic creatures to complex animals and humans. Fortunately, solutions are simple, inexpensive, and easy to implement.
The effects on human beings are also profound, affecting eyesight and cognition, and obesity and diabetes. I found this article so interesting that I’ve uploaded it to our website and you can find it here.
Pools of light
The discussion of darkness on TheHillGB also brought to mind the phrase “pools of light.” I think I was still a teenager when an older friend studying architecture handed me his copy of A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. I soon bought a copy of my own. It's battered now, a book I turn to when I start writing about home ecology, or trains, or third places and, well, almost anything you can think of. (It could use an update, of course, and I have been thinking about how that might be done. But the book as it stands is a treasure trove.)
Pools of Light is Pattern 252, the penultimate pattern in the book.
Uniform illumination—the sweetheart of the lighting engineers—serves no useful purpose whatsoever. In fact, it destroys the social nature of space, and makes people feel disoriented and unbounded. . . . It is meant to make the light as flat and even as possible, in a mistaken effort to imitate the sky.
The authors go on to explain:
But it is based on two mistakes. First of all, the light outdoors is almost never even. Most natural places, and especially the conditions under which the human organism evolved, have dappled light which varies continuously from minute to minute, and from place to place.
More serious, it is a fact of human nature that the space we use as social space is in part defined by light. When the light is perfectly even, the social function of the space gets utterly destroyed: it even becomes difficult for people to form natural human groups. If a group is in an area of uniform illumination, there are no light gradients corresponding to the boundary of the group, so the definition, cohesiveness, and "existence" of the group will be weakened. If the group is within a ' 'pool" of light, whose size and boundaries correspond to those of the group, this enhances the definition, cohesiveness, and even the phenomenological existence of the group.
. . . Everyday experience bears out the same observation in hundreds of cases. Every good restaurant keeps each table as a separate pool of light, knowing that this contributes to its private and intimate ambience. In a house a truly comfortable old chair, "yours," has its own light in dinnner surroundings—so that you retreat from the bustle of the family to read the paper in peace. Again, house dining tables often have a single lamp suspended over the table—the light seems almost to act like glue for all the people sitting round the table. In larger situations the same thing seems to be true. Think of the park bench, under solitary light, and the privacy of the world which it creates for a pair of lovers. Or, in a trucking depot, the solidarity of the group of men sipping coffee around a brightly lit coffee stand.
One word of caution. This pattern is easy to understand; perhaps it is easy to agree with. But it is quite a subtle matter to actually create functioning pools of light in the environment. We know of many failures: for example, places where small lights do break down even illumination, but do not correspond in any real way with the places where people tend to gather in the space.
Finally, here is the pattern:
Place the lights low, and apart, to form individual pools of light which encompass chairs and tables like bubbles to reinforce the social character of the spaces which they form. Remember that you can't have pools of light without the darker places in between.
This approach is relevant to heating, too. Modern homes and offices, at least in the US, have uniform heating and lighting. This is good for business: more energy used, and more technical installations required. But it’s wasteful, unaesthetic, and just plain not good for us. Another of Alexander’s patterns (230 Radiant Heat) explains:
Sunlight and a hot blazing fire are the best kinds of heat. . . . People are most comfortable when they receive radiant heat at a slightly higher temperature than the temperature of the air around them. The two most primitive examples of this situation are: (1) Outdoors, on a spring day when the air is not too hot but the sun is shining. (2) Around an open fire, on a cool evening.
I think of this when I sit reading by a woodstove (a modern and efficient stove with a glass front, so we can see the flames). The rest of the house is chilly, but it’s toasty by the fire (181 The Fire).
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