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And in the night there is light

In recent years, we’ve heard a lot about light pollution, this being the encroachment of electrical light on the darkness of night. I don’t think anyone denies the benefit of artificial light – for those of us that live in the northern hemisphere, life would be very, very, very (you get the picture, right?) dark without electricity.

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Lights seen from space, back in 1994-95. The lit up areas have expanded substantially since then

In comparison with our forefathers, we are blessed with a reliable source of light that makes life much more comfortable. Okay, so the reliability of electricity is not global. In many parts of the world, power cuts are the norm and people take it in their stride that sometimes the telly works, sometimes it doesn’t. “Inshallah” they say and shrug, because this electricity thing is in many ways as inexplicable as God.

Not so us, not so the pampered people of the north. A power cut is a catastrophe, and for weeks afterwards the media will debate just how to ensure enough redundancy in the system to make it work no matter what. That, of course, is an impossibility. One major storm, trees falling like domino tiles this way and that, and substations might be crushed, airborne wires may be broken. We don’t like these reminders about our own ineffectiveness, it does our ego no good to realise just how vulnerable we are when confronted with the powers of nature. Alternatively, one could argue that it does us a LOT of good to now and then be taken down a peg or two…

A Night Scene With An Old Lady Holding A Basket And A Candle, A Young Boy At Her Side About To Light His Candle From Hers - Peter Paul Rubens
An Old Lady w Candles and a Young Boy – Peter Paul Rubens. This is what it used to be like, before T Edison and all that…

Whatever the case, I am addicted to electricity – we all are. Modern day life wouldn’t work without power to run our computers, our radios, our washing machines, our factories, our transportation systems, our heating. But now and then I DO turn my lamps off, I switch off the TV, stow the computer and light a candle instead. Doing this in the city is a futile exercise. Ambient light is all around, so even if everything is turned off in our apartment, we are still bathed in light. Streetlamps, neon signs, the neighbour’s TV – it all sends reflections our way. This, dear readers, is light pollution. It is the constant presence of light even during those hours when all should be dark, it is the permanent light that kills the beauty of a twilight, the wonder of a dawn. And let’s not get me started on the stars…

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So this is a German factory in 1881, but it does exemplify all the things we need electricity for … (and then some, like hair dryers and computers)

Since some months back, we own a house set in the country. Real country. You must keep in mind that Sweden is a very large country with a relatively low number of inhabitants per square kilometre (20 people per square kilometre, to compare with 126 in Denmark, 231 in Germany or 246 in the UK ) So when we say “the country” we mean precisely that; very few houses, very much space between them and not a street lamp in sight. Okay, so there happens to be a street lamp on the road half a kilometre from our house, but I can assure you that very weak and orange light does not reach further than the nearby ditch.

The first night we slept there, it was mostly DARK. Dark enough that having to go to the toilet at night was an adventure resulting in stubbed toes and an aggravated dog (not my fault; I didn’t see his tail). The second night was an unclouded night, and I can’t recall when last I was so entranced. It was freezing cold, the frost crunched under our feet, but my husband and I stood outside, craned our heads back and gaped. There are so many stars out there – a carpet of zillions of bright dots. So many, in fact, that it was difficult to pick out the standard constellations against the three dimensional backdrop of stars, more stars, even more stars.

Some weeks later, we experienced the full moon. It silvered the ground, it dipped rocks and trees in an almost phosphorescent light. The hare that has made it over our fence froze in the light – one could almost think it a metal statue. The lake glittered like an antique mirror – the ones with glass made of mercury. And you know what? The light was quite sufficient for a night-time stroll, even if at times I hade the sensation that there were a lot of curious eyes out there, snouts that were raised at our passing to catch our scent.

File:Van Gogh - Starry Night - Google Art Project.jpg
Starry Night – Van Gogh

It is somewhat magic to experience these quiet nights, so full of light we no longer see – or even can see – in our cities and towns. Stars fade in the competition with neon signs. The moonbeam over the water is no lighter than the ray cast by the lantern that hangs from the harbour’s office.

Sometimes I worry that mankind will lose touch with the true miracles offered by our planet. Moonlight? Who cares, I can flip the switch and bathe my loft with light. Starlight? Pfff! Haven’t you seen the neat ceilings in the nightclubs? They’ve actually installed these little lamps that look JUST like stars (Eeeeeh… Not quite) A lake that lies like a glimmering expanse of glass? Yes, yes; but I have this floor to ceiling mirrored wall opposite my bed, now that’s what I call eye-catching!

We’ve been around for a long time as a species. Yes, both sharks and crocodiles are way older than us, but somehow I don’t think they do all that much contemplation. But humans do – we always have. One differentiating factor between us and the rest of the animal kingdom is that we can appreciate beauty. The caveman who happened upon a glorious sunset probably took as much pleasure from it as we do today. The farmer in the seventeenth century would lift his face to the sky and gape as stars fell like confetti when the Earth passed through the Leonids. And the moon – ah, the moon; how many generations have venerated this silver disk, how many men and women have stood beneath a crescent moon and felt unique and special as they kissed?

The Leonids, depiction of the 1833 meteorite rain

The night beyond our city borders is anything but dark; unless we venture out into it, we will never truly see the myriad points of light, the beauty of a naked tree silhouetted in the moonlight. We owe it to ourselves to experience this – we owe it to our kids to take them with us when we do.

I am addicted to electrical light – as are we all. But I love the soft light of the fading stars, the glimmer of pink along the horizon that presages dawn. And as to the moon, I go outside and lift my arms towards it. So did our common ancestress on the African plains, so did the Roman vestals and the Celtic druids. Maybe they were on to something, maybe they were wise enough to keep in mind just how insignificant we are, and just how brief our alloted time on Earth is.

Generations come, generations go. Life is lit, life is extinguished. We are born and die, a nanosecond of existence on the relative scale of time. But the moon and the stars they remain – they will always remain.

6 thoughts on “And in the night there is light”

  1. Wonderful post , Anna. This is a subject dear to my heart. Growing up I remember nighttime being DARK in our house. If you live near a city today there is no such thing. BTW I am enjoying reading your blog posts on so many different subjects. (and I enjoy your books, too!)

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Judith! I hope you wil continue enjoying posts and books ūüôā And yes, I can also remember days when dark was dark – even in a city.

  2. Dearest Anne- You would enjoy a trip to my neighborhood in te Mohave. It is called Sky Harbor for reasons I did not understand until I moved here. At the foot of our street where the paving ends is a little park that sits in a dip in the landscape sculpted by a flowing stream back in the days when California had water. It is a Little League field during baseball season and perfect as a Finish Line after Cross Country competitions,but most people,even the locals, do not know that it is here. But because of its location at the bottom of a ravine and the air quality 3800 feet up into the mountains bordering Joshua Tree National Park, when the field lights are turned off and the neighbors cooperate, it is considered one of the best places for star gazing in the northern hemisphere. Escorted buses required to turn off their lights as they near my house deliver visitors to the park each year during the meteor showers. While health and aging and stiff joints have changed our lifestyle in the past ten years, one November after our nest had empied Chris and I dragged a mattress from our guet room into the driveway in front of our house and spent the night watching the meteor showers. And sentimental woman that I am, on the last night that Hale-Bopps was visible to us in 1997, I cried. Haley’s and Hale-Bopps will visit here long after I am gone. I hope there still are people sensitive enough to turn out their lights and look.

    1. Dear Linda, thank you for sharing. The idea of lying on a mattress with someone you love and staring at the meteor shower makes me sigh – a bit wistfully, as up here it’s too cold in November to do so.

  3. Beautifully written, Anna. I have never experienced a northern winter and so can only imagine how precious light is to you. I live in a rural area in Australia, in the cool high country on the Queensland border, and your comments struck so many chords with me. Friends visit us in winter so they can experience the stars, the night sky and a crackling fire. Such experiences offer a deep, visceral satisfaction almost tribal in essence. A thought-provoking post!

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