Savoring the dark
One morning last week, as I walked the dog in what could have been the dead of night, half a moon suddenly popped up over the trees. Our shadows jumped out in front of us, as sharply drawn as they might have been on a sunny summer day.
Another morning there was only fresh snow, sparkling under stars, to light our way.
There are all kinds of darkness, and when you walk in it every morning, you learn to appreciate them all. There’s the thick, murky darkness of a foggy, moonless morning, when you can’t see to the end of the leash. There’s the bright blackness, when the trees are only a shade blacker than the sky they are drawn against, and the stars are tiny pin holes poked in the sky.
There are days when the lake is blacker than the sky, and the mountains are blacker than the lake they ring. And then there are the weekends, when the dog and I sleep in a bit, and walk in the daybreak and even the daylight.
What we don’t have to contend with is lights, other than the occasional car or logging truck barrelling down the road, lighting up the stripes on my safety vest.
The dark world we walk in allows us to watch the sky, see the stars and the moon, if they are out, and notice the difference when they are not. We use our ears more, listening for animals in the lake or woods, judging size by the splash or rustle. The dog stops to listen as often as I do.
It gets dark so early now. It’s night when I leave the office. But I am not driving home in darkness.
Instead I am almost blinded by the lights I drive by. Shopping centers don’t only light their parking lots for the safety of shoppers — they light the front of their buildings as if they were drive-in movie screens. They shine lights up into the air, obliterating the night sky for everyone miles around.
Spreading light pollution doesn’t just block out our view of stars. It affects nocturnal animals and our own circadian rhythms.
Last week during a vehicle emergency, my husband picked me up from work. “Are there more buildings? More lights?” he asked. “I just don’t remember all this.”
I guess it’s been a few years since he’s driven me home at night. There’s a new Lowe’s, a new car wash, a new Target — all lit up like spaceships. Most of Route 50, from Glenville to Saratoga, is flooded in lights from all the businesses, which keep their storefronts lit day and night.
In Saratoga, the new Criterion movie theater floods its corner with light, from its curved sign and wraparound marquee to its glassed-in lobby, where the bright signs inside pour light outside.
Even on my dark road, there’s a new house in what was a woodlot, and two neighboring woodlots for sale. The new house has a couple of outdoor flood lights that seem to stay on all night.
If more houses are built, will my new neighbors demand street lights? Will we lose our view of the Milky Way and the aurora borealis?
Already our skies are lightening. When we first moved to our home 25 years ago, the aurora was a common sight, the Milky Way blazed on any dark, moonless night, but especially in the dry winter air.
Now an aurora is rare. We see the Milky Way often, but not as brightly as we used to. Lights from our distant urban areas — Glens Falls, Lake George, Saratoga — and more houses around the lake, on our road and on the road behind us all conspire to rob us of darkness. Our meteor showers are less splendid than they used to be.
My kids have always loved blackouts, both for the candles inside and for the sky show outside.
I shouldn’t complain. When my daughter comes home from the big city, the first thing she looks at is the sky. Living in New York City, she misses stars, and says sometimes you can’t even make out the moon.
When she brought a school friend home with her last year, the two spent most of a night lying on blankets in the yard, watching the stars.
We’re lucky to be able to see them. We’d be luckier still if businesses would learn to aim their lights downward and turn them off after hours. Streetlights could be designed to focus most of their light downward, where it’s useful, and not up into the sky where it just blocks out the celestial lights.
And homeowners can use motion-sensitive lights, or tuck porch lights under the eaves where less light will leak out. They can ask themselves if flood lights are really necessary, and, if they are, can they at least be turned off after everyone goes to bed?
Darkness is becoming rarer. I hope it never becomes extinct.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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