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Wednesday, 21 November 2007 00:00

Dark and empty night skies — a thing of the past

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By Brent Martin

For those who have read Charles Frazier’s excellent Western North Carolina tale, Thirteen Moons, you will most likely remember his descriptions of the dark Nantahala Mountains and the vivid imagery associated with their empty night skies and spirit-filled forests.

Much has changed in the 150 years or so since the landscape appeared so largely undisturbed in Frazier’s novel, and of the many changes that we now experience daily one of the most profound is the proliferation of night light. Though a great deal of this is from new strip malls and parking lots, a lot of it comes from 24-hour a day vapor lights that dot the hillsides and valleys like the Brown Mountain lights gone bad.

I have wondered many times why people feel such a need for these lights, particularly when I have been driving home late on a winter night to my home in Cowee Valley. There is an expanse of them in both directions on Highway 28, and since most of the lights are from empty vacation homes, they could be serving no other purpose but to assist burglars who would ordinarily be fumbling with a flashlight. While these lights obviously are not causing anyone direct harm, perhaps we should consider their wasteful and ecological side effects.

According to the International Dark Sky Association (www.darksky.org), most of the light emitted by a vapor light is away from the ground, producing mostly glare and shadows (perfect for criminals). The huge number of these lights also means that we are burning a significant amount of coal and oil for no useful purpose, producing more waste and contributing to air pollution and water pollution as well.

The ecological side effects are perhaps most disturbing. It is well documented that night lights attract night migrating birds which are apparently orienting their flight patterns to what they believe to be the moon. Millions are killed each year in collisions with one another and with the lights that attract them to begin with. We have all seen thousands of insects around night lights, which cannot seem to resist this fatal attraction either. The moths which find such light irresistible expend tremendous amounts of energy hovering, sometimes until death, and it also cost the females a chance to attract a mate in their brief mating period. It can also interfere with their locating prime spots to lay eggs, and is largely believed to be the main reason for the decline of Saturnid moth species, such as the Luna Moth.

It is also a serious infringement on our ability to see the stars — something that we should value for no other reason than we need to lose ourselves in the vastness of starry night sky and remind ourselves of our small place in this enormous universe. As Dr. Brian Greene, Columbia University physicist and author of the best selling book, The Elegant Universe says: “I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly — or ever — gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe ... Perspective becomes myopic. But a clear night sky and a little instruction allows anyone to soar in mind and imagination to the farthest reaches of an enormous universe in which we are but a speck. And there is nothing more exhilarating and humbling than that.”

When my wife and I first moved into our old farmhouse in Cowee, two vapor lights served as bookends to the decrepit place. I called the power company to come out and remove them and was informed that they could do no such a thing, and that it was up to me to pay someone to disconnect them. I had an old .410 in the closet from my squirrel hunting days that I had not fired in a while, and it certainly needed to be used for old-time’s sake. Outside the lights hummed in the soft summer night and it felt wrong to disturb the beautiful silence. But I pulled up and shot each one with deeply gratifying and successful shots. Then, just to make sure they were good and dead, I shot them one more time.

It was darker at last, but the hollow still held a blue and eerie glow from two more just down the road.

(Brent Martin is a writer who lives in the Cowee community. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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