Let there be darkness

People

July 31, 2023



In defense of dark night skies

by Jim Dodson

During a business trip to a remote part of New Zealand last winter, I was reminded of the staggering beauty of the night. Stepping out of my bungalow just after midnight, the stars of the Southern Hemisphere took my breath away. There were untold millions of them arching overhead, blazing like white diamonds on black velvet. 

Because it was summer down under, there were also vivid sounds of calling night birds and insects murmuring in the fields and forests around me. I sat down on a wooden rocking chair and just listened for the better part of an hour, a perfect bedtime lullaby that reminded me of my daily wake-up routine back home in North Carolina. 

Well before sunrise most days, I take my coffee outside to sit beneath a grove of old trees and wait for the first songbird to herald the breaking day. Save for an occasional passing train or distant siren that briefly mars the silence, it’s the stillest part of any day, the perfect moment to think, meditate, pray or just be.

I’ve captured the first birdsong many times on my handy Cornell Lab Merlin Bird app. In my neck of the suburban woods, it’s usually a Carolina wren or eastern towhee that breaks the serenity of pre-dawn. Sometimes it’s the northern cardinal or melodious song sparrow who takes lead solo. Every now and then, a great horned owl or brown thrasher cues the chorus. Whichever one starts, as sure as night is dark, a chorus of a dozen or more birds soon join the songfest, including gray catbirds, mourning doves and American crows. 

I never tire of this avian awakening, finding a sense of true gratitude for my tiny spot on Earth as a new day begins.

And yet, I worry.

Last year, a report from National Audubon on the state of birds reported that the U.S. and Canada have lost 3 billion birds over the past half-century. The same report notes that half of America’s bird populations are in decline, prompting more than one expert to declare that we are already in the early throes of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. 

Global warming, loss of natural habitat, various forms of pollution and the fact that the night is no longer as dark as it used be are cited as primary contributing factors to the decline of thousands of species of birds, insects, reptiles and mammals, roughly half of which hunt, mate, feed and travel by night. Disappearing forests accelerate this decline.

Historian Jill Lepore echoes similar concerns in a recent New Yorker essay titled “What We Owe Our Trees.”

“Even if you haven’t been to the woods lately, you probably know that the forest is disappearing. In the past 10,000 years, the Earth has lost about a third of its forests, which wouldn’t be so worrying if it weren’t for the fact that almost all that loss has happened in the past 300 years or so. As much forest has been lost in the past hundred years as in the 9,000 before. With the forest go the worlds within those woods, each habitat and dwelling place, a universe within each rotting log, a galaxy within a pine cone. And, unlike earlier losses of forests, owing to ice and fire, volcanoes, comets and earthquakes — actuarially acts of God — nearly all the destruction in the past three centuries has been done deliberately, by people, actuarially at fault: cutting down trees to harvest wood, plant crops and graze animals.”

So what is an ordinary, suburban nature-lover and bird nut to do? That depends, I suppose, partly, at least, how you grew up.

I sometimes joke that I grew up in darkness. I had the privilege to grow up in a succession of sleepy Southern towns, following my dad’s itinerant newspaper career. From the coast of Mississippi to the Carolinas, Yeats’ proverbial “The Stolen Child,” with an imagination fired by nature, I explored woods and creeks, bringing home frogs and injured birds. The rule was, I had to be home by “full” darkness. Many an evening, I lingered in the twilight just to watch the fireflies come out and listen for the sounds of crickets, bullfrogs and night birds. In those days, the streetlights in these quiet rural towns were few.

I’m not speaking, mind you, of the metaphorical darkness showcased by everything from the Bible’s rich imagery of light and darkness (good and evil) to cable TV’s endless news loops of crime and disaster. There’s a perfectly good reason why depression is rightly called a “dark night of the soul.” Anyone who has experienced it might be forgiven for believing that the world is coming apart at the seams.

The first thing I did when my wife and I moved back to my hometown neighborhood seven years ago was plant 20 trees around the property. Today in summer, our house sits in a grove of beautiful trees. Our neighborhood’s giant oaks, maples and poplar trees still arch like druid elders throughout, providing home to a rich variety of birds and insects. They also give us welcome shade in summer and showcase the stars on winter nights.

Turning down the lights at night strikes me as one small but sensible act of kindness to nature, encouraging the living world around us to rest, so moths and other nighttime creatures can pollinate plants, fertilizing the start of the world’s food chain. 

In her lovely spiritual memoir, Learning to Walk in the Dark, theologian Barbara Brown Taylor points out that most of the monsters we fear in the dark are simply phantoms we create in our anxious, sleep-deprived minds. 

“I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light,” she writes. “Things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”

I was reminded of this fact one morning at the start of summer while awaiting my woodland wake-up call. Savoring the pre-dawn stillness beneath the trees, I suddenly realized that the fireflies had returned, magical messengers of hope that would be nowhere without the night. 

As August passes over us and the days grow shorter, the darkness grows.

I say, bring it on, dear neighbors, and sleep well.  SP

Jim Dodson is a New York Times bestselling author in Greensboro.

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