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Curtains of Light

Night skies have forever been a tool and a point of fascination for mankind. To a less important degree than ancient man or mariners, the night sky has been a source of technology-free nighttime navigation and enjoyment for me. It is an acquired ability to become familiar with the skies, especially to the point of trusting your navigation by it. With the multitude of stars that are visible in a clear night sky one star quickly becomes similar to its neighbor unless you are innately familiar with that portion of the sky. Becoming innately familiar with something, however, takes much longer than most of us are willing to commit to, today. More specifically, the night sky requires that we spend some time outside of the four walls and shingled rooves in our homes, looking up at something that we don't factor into the list of "important things" in our daily lives.

As time moves and history is generated, travel technology has rendered knowledge of the night skies almost useless to the common person. One can hop on a plane and fly across oceans with little to no regard as to which stars are outside our main cabin window if one were lucky enough to snag that window seat in the first place. Our knowledge of that sky has only to exist if we want it. Leaving Texas on an overnight flight and landing in Australia would render your knowledge of your home night sky useless as it will be a vastly and nearly immediately different set of stars by which to navigate. We only have to hope that the GPS satellites and navigation tech in the cockpit know the sky well enough to get us there. Historically, a cruise on a ship from the US would require the ship's crew and captain to know the night sky not only at home and at the destination, but how to follow those gradually changing skies as the journey progressed. That mankind spread around this world with a mental knowledge of the stars, tools primitive in comparison to today's navigational tech like the sextant and astrolabe, and a desire or need to move is mind-blowing. That today, large percentages of us live in cities where even the brightest stars are no longer visible and are okay with that is equally mind-blowing. Don't get me started on the children who never have the opportunity to see the night sky as it should be seen.

In Olney, we have been fortunate enough that light pollution has remained relatively low for most of my life. For the last 36 years anyway, on any given night we could walk outside almost anywhere in town except Main Street and see the major constellations, perhaps a satellite occasionally passing overhead, and a good bit of the other features of the night sky. At night as a teenager, my sister and I would sometimes sleep in the backyard on peak meteor shower nights and could observe many meteors without the need to leave home and seek darkness. The street lights of Olney have been in a static mix between the orange-glowing low-pressure sodium bulbs that cast an eerie metropolitan cone of light below, and the whitish-blue hue of the xenon and mercury-based bulbs. None of them are intrusively bright unless an old, burned-out bulb is replaced outside your bedroom window where you were accustomed to darkness. These faithfully humming lights do their job. The job of illuminating the night, out of concern for the general safety of citizens and the elimination of areas where a criminal might conduct his nefarious deeds. I am not immune to the idea that illuminated areas likely deter criminal mischief and prevent accidents. But as a product of my interaction with the outdoors away from businesses and neighborhoods, the humming orange and white cones of light is also a source of much discontent. Standing in one of these orbs of illumination gives a person the intrinsic human feeling of safety. However, if there is a distance between that cone in which you are standing and the next, the darkness that resides between is likewise intrinsically terrifying. We fear the dark. We are not so far removed from our ancestry who had a reason for this concern that we can feel safe in darkness. That age-old question of self-preservation arises: 'What unknown enemy might use this cover against us?'. Naturally, our response to any area that might give a reason for that question is to eliminate it. If the city you call home won't erect more lamp posts to fill in that darkness, it's time to cover your own ass and flood the outside of your home with flood lights and landscape lighting that automatically turn on when that wretched darkness attempts to impose its uncertainty on you while you sleep in the open around your campfire with your family. I meant to say, the brick and mortar walls that hum with electricity, insulation, and all but imperviousness to all natural enemies that might cause harm. We are still so obsessed with the idea of darkness equating danger or unknown that we don't even give it the chance to show us what it holds before we switch on a light to keep it at bay. In most cases, on a given weekday after work, many of us would go out after dark only to check on one of these solar-powered landscape lights that aren't holding up their end of the deal. Storing the energy of the sun, to release it upon the antithesis of what light is and what light is, is good.

Unless. (There's that word from that quote from the Lorax that I love so much). Unless you ever cared to look up at night. Unless you enjoy going outside in the late fall and winter to find your old friend Orion, that gigantic, ravenous hunter hoisting his club and shield in defense against the mighty Scorpio, the harbinger of hot summer nights in the Northern hemisphere. Those stars, the ones that compose our imagined heroes and villains of the night sky burn bright with the electromagnetic radiation of photons, in many cases, from some of the same elements we use in our droning, faithful watchdog street lights. Sodium with its singular EM wavelength of 589 nm is detectable from the stars. As the violent energy of stars adds energy to the atoms of sodium within their cosmic composition, the electrons reach an excited state and in such a state, the electrons emit discrete amounts of energy in that wavelength of 589 nm. Coupled with the atoms of other elements present, the result is space-penetrating light that over years or millennia finally makes its way to us. In the case of our beloved star, the sun, the proximity allows our vital light to grace the surface of our Goldilocks planet in a little over 8 minutes. Scientific digression. We have captured one of the stars' many recipes for light and now our nighttime maps resemble a very poorly distributed field of stars.

When necessarily I have to spend time in a city, a thing I am more and more loathe to do, I make it a point to look up several times a night. For no other reason than to look at what will inevitably become a reality for more and more people. To find gratefulness for the time that I have been able to spend instead, under a night sky devoid of man-made light. A sky that is visually devoid of stars. Instead, the avenues are littered with every corporate logo that signifies our lust for comfort, leisure, distraction, and that warm glowing safety from the voids of the night. Neon, sodium, and many other mixtures of gases and filaments bring nocturnal life to the businesses that slake our desire for a new flavor, a new sound, or something pretty to look at all burning brightly and beckoning us to follow them within to get a short grasp of euphoria, and then return home, where the lights are on outside the home to ward off evil, and the blackout curtains are drawn to force darkness upon our minds.

I remember vividly one of the first times as a child I was able to witness light pollution from a nearby town and realize just how intrusive we are to our night skies. Although memory fails me as to recall at what age this was, I was with my dad and a few others at our little 40-acre farm camping out one night. We went on a night hike around the property and stopped at the top of the hill that rises on the Northern fence line. When looking to the North-Northeast this glow was cast above the horizon. It wasn't exactly the glow of a sunrise but in my mind that was all that it could have been so I asked, "What is that light, Dad?", and he said "Wichita Falls". The sparse low clouds that hung around Wichita Falls collected the light in their condensed molecules of water and created a sort of lampshade above the city. Now, my dad is known to give information very seriously but shortly after, he will begin to chuckle sheepishly as he admits he is kidding. I waited for that. Unwilling to fall for the joke or just unbelieving at that age (whatever it was, maybe vivid was not the right word), that a town 44 miles away would cast off enough light for us to see from our farm that, to me, was in the 'middle of nowhere'. The chuckle never came. But as I explained that I mistook it for the sunrise, I got an explanation of where East was from our position. It was indeed almost a 90-degree turn to find where the sun would rise hours later. There was a fleeting and naive feeling of awe and disbelief that we as a population could make enough light to reach over that great distance. 'Great' is a relative term for the age I was, then. Trips to Wichita Falls always seemed farther as a child. Perhaps they were.

The glow of the Dallas/Fort Worth skyline to the East of our property near Olney 2/1/2024

I say perhaps they were because the creep of humanity is breaching the gaps between Olney and Archer City, the mid-point town on the route to Wichita Falls. And also, breaching the gaps between Archer City and Wichita Falls. No longer are there large gaps between house-seeded properties. The rate of seeding is only increasing. And so is the orb of light that accompanies it. Fort Worth and the rest of the metroplex used to only be visible from Olney at night if the conditions were just right. Now, its cancerous orb spreads across a large swath of the horizon to the East. If you awoke during the night from a long nap on top of the hill on the 40 acres and had no measure of time, you could mistake it for the makings of sunrise. Olney itself now glows brightly in the night. Our population has grown and waned over the years. No longer, is it just the dull glow of porch lights and street lights. Industry and concern for lighting a school district campus during the hours that students are not in attendance have in the last 5 years created a disadvantageous night sky viewing environment. Yes, those new LEDs that blind you on the roads at night can likewise be mounted on poles and buildings and turn a parking lot devoid of cars into 24/7 daylight. There is no stop and usually little change to human ‘progression’ until it is too late.

The glow of Olney to the South of our property 2/1/2024

Curtains. Curtains of light, rising in three of the four cardinal directions surrounding that little hill. Curtains that not only illuminate the windows of bedrooms and bases of hovering clouds. No, these curtains rise, as high as the night sky will allow. No, it is not a solid pillar but those spreading wavelengths invade the eyes, eliminating the ability to discern the vague fields of stars of the Milky Way, enclosing those that do look up from time to time in a slowly closing ring of light soon to most likely be colored in with more light. Lights around deer hunting camps (ironic since you leave the city and its lights to enjoy the country), lights near barns, lights on streets, lights to make a house look good at night (when no one is looking anyway), lights that interfere not only with the function of our eyes and ability to see stars but also interfere with organisms ability to navigate by the natural sources of light and reflection at night. Migrating birds have been found to suffer navigationally from excessively bright nighttime areas. All of the light, all of the time is thought to be bad for us. Bad for your circadian rhythm, bad for stress levels, and sleep habits. So instead of turning some lights off to enjoy some darkness, we put up blackout curtains and let the light burn on. The open side of that ring of light around our little hill is to the West. As the light closes in from the other three directions, I am more inclined to think about squeezing through that opening and finding a darker place.

Trans-Pecos Texas and the Big Bend regions hold the key to my nighttime heart. Large swaths of darkness. Real Darkness. Almost totally devoid of manmade light. The stars are so bright some nights that walking without a flashlight is possible even on a new moon night. On full moon nights, the pale white glow of the moon on the caliche is so bright and beautiful that sleep is difficult in a tent. But it doesn't hum, it doesn't blind you as you pass it, it doesn't detract from the beauty of the night sky. It is an integral part of the cyclical beauty of the night sky. On a recent trip to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, my family stayed out hiking until after dark. A bright maybe full moon illuminated things so greatly that my dad, youngest daughter Mae, and I walked the last mile or so of gentler terrain with no artificial light. Likewise, on a thermal feral hog hunt last year, a full moon provided enough light to navigate effectively without any artificial light. I have done this often but those two times the moon was exceptional and made it easy. It is invigorating. I took a group of 9 of my biology students to Belize last year. We were fortunate enough to get to do a night snorkel. At one point during the night snorkel, we congregated around float rings and turned our waterproof lights off. Looking up we were collectively alone, in the Caribbean, in the dark, with an abundance of stars above. For all of us land-dwelling, North Texans, it was a humbling experience. Not to mention the bioluminescent invertebrates that we observed below us afterward, by kicking our swim fins. Their light would also be washed away in the presence of too much artificial light. Swimming, drifting, blinking stars.

A few of my students sitting on the long dock of Tobacco Caye in Belize

If you have never taken a walk in total nighttime darkness with only the illumination of the stars and moon, I recommend you try it at least once. Try it carefully first, be smart, in a location you are perhaps familiar with. Measure your steps. Go slowly. Let go of that clinging fear of being in the dark. Embrace your body's ability to heighten the senses. Sure, carry that 3000-lumen flashlight but don't use it unless you need it. The more you turn it on, the longer your eyes will take to acclimate to the darkness. Feel the ground, the vegetation, the path through your feet, and see for yourself that darkness can awaken the ability to navigate in the dark better than you'd think. Sure, maybe those heightened senses come from that same primeval pit of our being that makes us want light in retaliation against the darkness. But the beauty that is beyond that ever-secure cone of a street lamp, is worth it.

I tend to doubt Olney and the surrounding area will ever have a shot at returning to a 'darker time' without much more serious reasons than just a grumpy science teacher who guides hunting and fishing trips in his spare time. I would love to see us turn some lights out at night. Not all, for those that are frightened of that. But some. I loathe to think that I may one day have to travel farther for my children or grandchildren to see the stars as I did.

But, as things go, I probably will.

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