Matt Gaw (2020) Under the Stars: A Journey into Light

Matt Gaw’s son mused that we spend 26 years of our life asleep, or if you’re my sister who is apt to like her long lies, 50 or her 60 years asleep. Gaw gives us a wake-up call in six chapters that begins in moonlight and ends in darkness. His family remain largely, unimpressed by his journey that takes him from his home in Bury St Edmonds, Thetford, the bright lights of London, Oban, and Isle of Coll, which is designated a Dark Sky Community.

I look out my back gate at night and my neighbour has a light that seem to jump on and off and illuminate my living room. My neighbour to my right has a light that turns on and off and is noise activated. I too have an unnecessary back light, because my partner wants to check when the cat comes to the back door it doesn’t have anything in its mouth. I didn’t get a vote in this. We have two streetlights, one outside our kitchen window and another less than one-hundred metres away, illuminating the back yards.  My old neighbour, Daft Rab, used to go out in his moped and check street lighting hadn’t blown a fuse, working twice a day. If he’d any sense he’d have just sat in the house and checked them once a fortnight, but not only was he daft but he was diligent. It’s all done electronically now, of course.

Gaw offers some statistics, to put this into context. ‘Nine million streetlights, one for every eight people –light pollution.’ We can no longer look up at the night sky and see the stars, or even the moon. He argues we have lost something.

To walk at night has been a night twice lived.

The natural night has shrunk back into the shadows.

But there’s more than a sense of vertigo when we leave our overly bright rat runs.

Dark nights are on the wane. Just 21.7% of England has pristine skies. Between 1992 and 2009 there has been a 39% increase in dimly lit areas across the UK and a 19% increase in brightly lit areas.

The World Health Organization classified night work as a probable carcinogen in 2007.  Yet more and more of us are—forced to—work at night. But it’s not all about us, humans. David Attenborough, Blue Planet, on BBC1 dramatically showed turtle hatchlings going in the wrong direction, away from the beach and crushed under car wheels after being drawn to coastal lights rather than the reflection of the moon on the sea. Gaw reports that ‘a recent study estimates that between 100 million and a billion birds are killed in the US alone as a result of light pollution. Artificial light has changed everything, in often unpredictable ways.’

Gaw’s conclusion:

Light is part of the same toxic cocktail as habitat fragmentation and human development. An imbalance in the natural world that impacts on plants, pollinators, mammals, birds and eventually, us. 

Will we change out habits? Like the real big one, global warming (cities as well as being over lit are also much warmer than surrounding countryside) Dark Skies will be an anomaly, an outlier in the larger picture of destruction on a global scale. Gaw’s outward journey takes him inward to reflect what was and what can be.  I’m a pessimist.