Night: not just for astronomers

by Andrea Clark Mason

Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark
Edited by Paul Bogard
208 pages,
softcover: $21.95.
University of Nevada Press, 2008.

Many of us in the rural West still get to enjoy dark skies and bright stars, but in urban areas around the world, night is not as black as it once was. Paul Bogard has compiled 29 essays by environmental writers and scientists that explore the ways we experience darkness and the reasons why we need it. Many of these writers are reminded of the beauty -- and the menace -- of darkness by young children, awed by the wild sky. When one of Kathleen Dean Moore's friends takes her niece to a planetarium, the girl comments: "Did you know a long time ago, people could really see stars like this?" Laurie Kutchins writes of her 3-year-old daughter's desire to go outside their Wyoming cabin to see the stars: "When she looks up, the Milky Way will be a giant spill, a long wide band down a skunk's back." Other writers see night as a time of solitude. Jennifer H. Westerman walks her dark house, waiting for her daughter to be born. Scott Russell Sanders confronts his midnight dread: "So where am I to turn in these unlocked hours before dawn?"

Still other pieces, like David Gessner's "Trespassing on Night," take on issues of community. One of Gessner's Cape Cod neighbors wants to light up the nearby beach. Eventually, local laws decide the matter, keeping the neighbor's lights inside his own house. Many writers ask who owns the night, and answer that it belongs to everyone. In the coda, astronomer Christian Luginbuhl reminds us that "nobody ever seems to make the mistake of thinking that we protect Yellowstone or Grand Canyon just for geologists and rockhounds."

The book is divided into five sections that organize the many short pieces. Unfortunately, the introductions have a didactic tone, and the pieces themselves are often too much alike. Nevertheless, Let There Be Night is a provocative book, useful in an age where activism and education are needed if we want to keep the nighttime dark. 

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