hearts and minds

August 5, 2006

Hitch your Wagon to a Star

Filed under: Environment,Light pollution — Hearts & Minds @ 6:12 pm

A local amateur astronomy club last week unveiled its impressive homemade Panarusky telescope, weighing a ton and sporting a twenty inch primary light gathering mirror. This spring has been an especially good time for stargazing, with the once in a lifetime planetary show to which we’ve been treated. Folks in the city don’t get to enjoy the night sky. Too many concentrated artificial lumens block the splendor of those billions of twinkles from so far away.

The sky that has for ages held portent and meaning and inspiration common to all humanity has become much less familiar to us. Are you one of the very few left who can tell at a glance whether the moon is waxing or waning? What with all the labor saving and modern efficiencies, who has time to look up in wonder at the night sky from whence we came? The very atoms that constitute our own bodies were forged in the spectacular crucibles of supernovas. We’ve been there. You and I are made of stardust. So our long and ultimate connection with the night sky is not outmoded, like the slide rule has been outmoded by the glowing computer monitor. Stargazing is born not of boredom, but of curiosity and the search for truth, beauty and meaning.

The loss of the full brilliance of our night sky to the glare and loom of artificial lighting diminishes us as surely as pollution of another kind causes us to breathe shallowly and to teach children that we can no longer drink water unless it comes out of a pipe or a bottle. Look south at night and the metropolitan loom obscures all stars up to about thirty degrees above the horizon. Overhead, a lot less starlight appears than when you were a child. The truth is, we’re actually within and causing that loom, and every year it’s getting worse.

There’s a small woods I know that’s home to a nesting pair of red-tailed hawks which has been lit only by natural ambient light since the woods staked its claim following the last ice age… until very recently when one city transplant started sowing light bulbs around his house on an adjacent property – dozens of outside lights at last count. Now there’s no joy in going for a walk in those woods on a crisp winter’s night. Now, one stumbles through a raucous visual cacophany of blaring light rays randomly occluded by black vertical forest columns, punctuated by pokes in the face from branches undetected due to the blinding flashes.

Other communities around the country have recognized and locally slowed the trend to increasing light pollution by enacting sensible ordinances that basically say, light your place if you need to, but don’t light up the sky, and don’t trespass on your neighbor with your glare. Subtle, indirect shielded light is practical, effective and reflects superior design esthetics. Better yet, enjoy beautiful changeable ambient natural light.

Reining in on excessive exterior lighting not only keeps our rural night sky a treat for the eyes, it also saves energy, and who can quarrel with that? Recently the U.S. Department of Energy (remember those controversial secret meetings about energy policy with V.P. Dick Cheney and various unnamed corporate CEO’s?) gave a hundred thousand dollars to Charter Steel which has manufacturing facilities in northern Ozaukee County, to encourage them to find ways to save energy. Nice work if you can get it – federal tax dollars going to a for-profit corporation to improve its bottom line. The D.O.E. is dancing with Charter Steel. Wisconsin Electric made the gallant introductions. And our governor is waiting to cut in. Some may perceive indications herein of the mysterious workings of the famous “invisible hand” of the marketplace. Others may say this is government doing what it’s supposed to do – using resources to benefit and serve the people. Still others will see just another instance of “corporate welfare”. Whatever you call it, since taxpayers foot the bill, it’d be nice if we had some input. For my two cents, I’d like Charter to save some energy and money by reducing the glare and the new loom in the north sky from all those misdirected and unnecessary lights.

May, 2002

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1 Comment »

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