As a child, Paul Bogard spent summers with his family at a lake in Minnesota, surrounded by the still of nature and the sound of wind feathering through trees. He was surrounded also, he remembers, by stars he couldn't peel his eyes off of. It was during these marathon stargazing sessions that Bogard says he "learned about the night sky, learned about the importance of darkness." Without it, constellations grow so distant as to be mythical. They get lost.
A mark of modern civilization is the taming of the natural world around us, diverting rivers, blasting mountains and turning the night sky into a safely lit almost-day. But like most giant leaps we've taken in technology, Bogard believes we haven't given enough thought as to how all of this artificial light affects us, not realizing that our country suffers from light pollution.
As part of his mission to direct our attention to the importance of pure night and the dangers of excessive illumination, Bogard edited Let There Be Night, a collection of pieces by 29 essayists, scientists, poets and scholars on their personal understanding of the significance of darkness. Bogard defines light pollution as the "overuse or misuse of lights. We use way too much light for the task at hand. We overlight. ... Billboards [are] lit from the bottom up so that the light goes straight up into the sky." This waste of light is expensive and sucks energy, but there’s more, he contends. "Animals and birds that are nocturnal ... it screws up their lives." If a creature relies on the cover of dark to do its hunting and that dark no longer exists, it’s endangered, forced from its habitat, throwing local ecosystems into shock. Bogard also explains that too much nocturnal light is wreaking havoc on human's biology, with some linking cancer rates to our reduced production of melatonin, which our bodies create in darkness and is hampered by light.
Beyond the physical, the effects of less true night have spiritual and communal consequences as well. "People no longer experience real night, real darkness," Bogard laments. "The shared human experience, the awe, the wonder that lead to a spiritual connection. ... There's a lot of art that's inspired by darkness." With night rendered anemic by what amounts to loud shouts of light intended to proclaim the supremacy of modern life, he fears there has been a correlating loss of inspiration and sense of wonder. For example, Bogard says, “Van Gogh's Starry Night. You would never have that now."
Bogard will be back in New Mexico (he received his M.A. in Creative Writing from UNM in 2003) for readings and presentations on Thursday, Feb. 19, at 7 p.m. at Bookworks and Friday, Feb. 20, at 5 p.m. at Garcia Street Books in Santa Fe. Bogard will be joined by Let There Be Night contributor and UNM professor of English Dr. Gary Harrison.