Dark Skies

I grew up on a farm in the Scottish Borders. The nearest house to the one we lived in was about quarter of a mile away, the nearest town was about seven miles away and the nearest city about fifty miles away. When I went outside on a clear moonless night I have no idea how many stars I could see. Above me the of the universe was on display. Later in life I earned my living at sea. Sitting on the fo’c’sle on a warm tropical night looking up at the strange – to northern eyes – stars of the Southern Hemisphere is a memory I will always cherish. Now I live in the South London suburbs, I once counted the stars I could see on a clear moonless night. There were 42 visible. Where have all the stars I marvelled at in my youth gone. They are all still there. But our insistence that there be no difference between daylight and night drowns them out.
About two weeks ago we observed Earth Hour. We switched our lights off at 20:30, and discovered that with the light from the street lights at the front of the house, and our neighbour’s ‘security’ (as in blanket) light at the back, there was enough light, if not to read by, but to do most things.

About one hundred and twenty years ago Vincent Van Gogh was trying to work out how to capture the night skies magnificence in his paintings. These are some of the results.

The Starry Night (June 1889), The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Starry Night, immortalised in song by Don McLean is probably his most famous painting. The flow, the colour and the movement in the painting brings home to me the brightness and the wonder that was in the sky above Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He also painted an earlier picture generally known as Starry Night Over the Rhone, painted from the east side of the Rhone in Arles.

Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888), Musée d'Orsay, Paris
I’m not sure that if he were alive and painting in the 21st century that Van Gogh could have painted these. Although I have not been to either place at night, my feeling is that there will be too much artificial light to see the stars properly.
I want to get back to a place where we can see the stars.  I believe that the fact that we never see the heavens in all their glory is diminishing us as people. We lose our sense of wonder, we lose our sense of where we belong in the universe, and become ever more insular and me centred. (It could be argued that there is nothing more *me* centred than blogging, but I’ll pass on that for the time being).
We can improve the situation though. We can lobby out local government to adopt more efficient street lighting, lights that illuminate the street and not the sky. We can encourage them to turn off unnecessary street lighting and not to illuminate buildings as a matter of course.
The British Astronomical Association’s Campaign for Dark Skies gives more ideas about what we can do.
There is only one question left to ask –  Have You Seen The Stars Tonight?


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