Review: The End of Night

Bogard_EndofNight_HCThe End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light 
Paul Bogard (Little, Brown 2013)
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I’ve never seen the Milky Way. This is quite peculiar, given that the Milky Way is a galaxy a hundred thousand light-years across, and a galaxy isn’t something you casually misplace along with your sunglasses and your keys. Almost as peculiar is the fact that I’ve spent my entire life with a missing galaxy, and I didn’t even notice.

You’ve likely already guessed the explanation, which is disappointingly mundane. (There are no star-swallowing black holes or doomsday devices here.) I’ve always lived in big cities, with lights so bright they wash out all but a scattering of stars. While I knew that I could see the stars better out in the country, I never realized how far skyglow from cities spills into rural areas — or that on the East Coast, with so many tightly-packed cities, it’s almost impossible to find a truly dark sky. As a result, it didn’t occur to me that there might still be something missing from the rural night skies I saw. I just figured the Milky Way was something you could only see in very specific parts of the world, much like the Grand Canyon or coral reefs.

Obviously, this is absurd. Canyons and reefs aren’t exactly small, but they are characteristically much smaller than a planet, and galaxies characteristically aren’t. With appropriate caveats for cloud cover, moonlight, and time of the year, it should be possible to see the Milky Way from anywhere on Earth. Yet I only ever thought of light pollution as a threat to sea turtle hatching — yes, I did grow up in Florida, how did you guess — and I never made the connection between city lights and the stars I couldn’t see at night.

Once The End of Night spelled out for me that light pollution compromises starry skies…well, maybe I’m a heartless wretch, but it turns out I care a lot more about my view of the stars than I do about the plight of baby turtles. To be fair, I didn’t need a lot of convincing. Bogard references UNESCO’s 2007 Declaration in Defence of the Night Sky and the Right to Starlight, which states that “An unpolluted night sky that allows the enjoyment and contemplation of the firmament should be considered an inalienable right of humankind equivalent to all other environmental, social, and cultural rights,” and this declaration just about sums up my view on the heavens. Almost 80% of people in North America can’t see the Milky Way, and the full glory of the night sky shouldn’t be something most people only find in the pages of National Geographic.

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The Milky Way over Bruneau Dunes State Park, Idaho. Photo by Shane Black.

Of course, you might not be as easily convinced as I was by the promise of a pretty sky — and it wouldn’t be much of a book if Bogard simply pointed to the Declaration in Defence of the Night Sky and called it a day. He approaches the problem of artificial light at night from several angles, outlining its detrimental effects on human health, the impact of light pollution on animal migration, and the available evidence connecting safety and street lighting. I particularly appreciated that he included historical context about the development and adoption of artificial lights, framed through a series of nighttime strolls in London and Paris. Most of all, I was especially happy to see that his chapter on light pollution focused on possible improvements for badly-designed outdoor lighting, because a solvable problem is catnip to an engineer.

The End of Night is certainly persuasive, although in many ways that’s a credit to the strength of the argument rather than the strength of the writing. I found the content of the book fascinating, but the manner in which Bogard chose to convey that information was often unnecessarily confusing. Most broadly, he seemed unwilling to decide whether his book ought to be a memoir, a history, a travelogue, or a science text, and ended up splitting the difference. While it is certainly possible to have one book that elegantly blends all four genres, here it feels chaotic: an interview with the co-author of the World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness is interrupted to enumerate exactly which Mantuan pasta dishes they ate at dinner, and his conversation with the author of Paris, Paris is broken by a page-long description of his walk from the Gare du Nord train station to his hotel.

Even within an explanation of a single topic, Bogard meanders to the point of confusion. He alludes to Paris’ outdoor lighting program, detours for seven pages to discuss the history of street lights in Paris, and then returns to describe his interview with the Paris lighting director, a fascinating gentleman responsible for the exquisite golden glow of everything from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre’s Cour Carrée. Once you’ve acclimated to the almost stream-of-consciousness chronology, though, one of the biggest strengths of the book is its interviews with a wide variety of dark sky advocates, cancer researchers, astronomers, authors, biologists, night-shift workers, and even a campus minister. They serve as an impressive survey of the many aspects of human life impacted by artificial light at night, and provide introductions to other avenues of inquiry for interested readers.

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The Milky Way over Ruby Lake. Photo by Dave Morrow.

The writing itself fluctuates between occasional moments of extraordinary poetry:

…on nights when the lake calms, I pull the ancient aluminum canoe from under the cedar trees and push it into water heavy like black oil, though clean and clear and cool. I back from dark shoreline shadows, paddling through stars, and raise a gold moon from the trees.

and frequent moments of unbelievable clunkiness, when I had to re-read a sentence several times in order to parse it.† It is clear that Bogard loves writing and the written word, for he weaves in quotes from many great writers — Thoreau, Dickens, Tanizaki, Stevenson — about night and the dark; however, this in some ways works to his detriment, because after reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of lamplighters “speeding up the street and, at measured intervals, knocking another luminous hole into the dusk,” the bar for beautiful writing is most definitely raised.

On the subject of poets and writers, I feel I would be remiss if I did not mention the moment in The End of Night when Bogard visits Ken Lamberton, a writer and naturalist who won the John Burroughs Medal for his book Wilderness and Razor Wire, which he wrote during his twelve-year stint in prison. Regarding this, Bogard said “I don’t know the whole story of why Ken was in prison. I’ve heard he made a mistake, and that maybe there was a judge who wanted to send a message.” My curiosity wouldn’t have been piqued if he hadn’t said this; people go to prison for any number of reasons. However, Bogard’s equivocation prompted me to do a bit of digging, and within a few moments of Googling I discovered that Lamberton, who was formerly a science teacher, was imprisoned for raping a 14-year-old student. I feel it goes without saying that this is not the sort of thing one brushes aside with a casual “I’ve heard he made a mistake.”†† This dismissive aside, combined with the lack of fact-checking I mentioned above, made it quite difficult for me to trust Bogard’s perspective on the material he was describing.

With all that said, The End of Night is a solid introduction to an interesting cultural problem. It was a very bittersweet read, because it taught me I’d lost something I never knew I had any reason to miss, but I found it highly worthwhile. While the book is a relatively broad-but-not-deep survey of the far-reaching impact of artificial light at night, it’s a good primer for a novice, and it’s well-referenced enough to allow readers to sink their teeth in if they want to. It’s not likely to be a book I regularly refer back to — instead, I’m interested in some of the books Bogard references — but even if all I take away from The End of Night is a better understanding of light pollution and a newfound enthusiasm for dark sky advocacy, I’d consider it more than worth the read.

†I diagrammed one of these especially clunky sentences…by hand, because sometimes I am ridiculous and I was trying to prove a point.

††I would also be remiss if I didn’t add a caveat here. My issue is not with Bogard quoting a convicted child molester — Lamberton served his time, and while his actions were appalling, they have no bearing on his abilities as a naturalist or a writer — but rather with such a casual dismissal of a very serious crime.

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