Fling The Stars

Several villages in the corner of eastern France where I live have started shutting off town streetlights from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Until now, I never realized just how much having streetlights had formed my idea of what a community looks like at night.

Last year, flyers were hand-delivered to homes, informing us that streetlights and all public lighting would be turned off at night to save money, to save energy, to reduce pollution (both of emissions and light), and finally, to support the recovery of nocturnal animals.

Being a nocturnal animal myself, I thought this seemed like a good idea. But also, of course, good for the bats and night creatures.

Then, a week or so ago, I was driving home after a night at the movies, and I entered our village of around 1200 inhabitants near the Swiss border. It was utterly dark. I couldn’t see the primary school my daughter had attended, nor the picturesque 19th century post office, nor the 12th century church that has just been restored to its modest glory.

light pollution, streetlights, urban lighting, darkness, stargazing
A local village sign advising caution due to lack of public lighting between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Photo: PKR

More importantly, I didn’t see a large group of teenage boys that was out on the one main street. There were at least ten of them, loping along together through the shadows – usually they would have been easily spotted, smoking under the cover of the lone bus stop shelter. Now, I only saw them at the last moment, jumping onto the sidewalk and off the road in the beams of my headlights.

Light pollution and the energy it takes to power night lighting has been a topic of discussion for years, and numerous cities now require non-residential businesses to turn off non-essential lights after the last worker leaves the building.

Dark Sky Communities, Udsigten, Møns, light pollution, darkness, night time
The Milky Way arches over Udsigten at the Møns Klint Resort on the island of Møn, Denmark, designated IDA Dark Sky locations.
Photo: Thomas Ix/www.foto-ix.de via IDA

But the streetlights? Even as places around the world retro-fit with LED lighting, which is more flexible and energy efficient, I hadn’t seen much discussion about actually leaving residential areas in complete darkness at night. Then I found this, the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), which aims to drastically cut light pollution at night. It has a searchable map for locating reserves and communities committed to turning of the lights.

I get it, and it’s a new line of exploration for me. But for now, if I go out on a moonless or cloudy night, it is to an invisible village cloaked in deep shadow. Light shines from windows here and there, outlining human activity and making it seem smaller. The view of the stars has become breathtaking, but it will take me some time to adjust to the new vision of our night time home.