I love dark skies text

Driftless Dark Skies: Three Words

International Dark Sky Week posterInternational Dark Sky Week (April 2-8) is a worldwide celebration of the dark and natural night. This month, I would like to indulge my fascination with words from my previous careers as an English teacher and as a research assistant with the Dictionary of American Regional English and offer three words for your consideration.

NOCTALGIA “sky grief”. Aparna Venkatesan and John Barentine proposed this term in a letter to the journal Science last year “for the accelerating loss of the home environment of our shared skies, a disappearance felt globally.” It is what we feel when we see light pollution spreading year by year. When we remember how “there once was a sky full of stars.” When we learn how the children born today will find it challenging to see the Milky Way and will have far fewer stars to wish upon. When we confront more and more studies showing the health risks of artificial light at night. When we discover the harm being done to the ecosystem of our one home as circadian rhythms are disrupted, pollinators confused, plant cycles altered, and migratory patterns disturbed. “Our diminishing ability to view the nighttime sky due to rapidly rising human-made light pollution is part of the palpable keening of all that is passing each day.”

NYCTOPHOBIA “fear of the dark”. This one runs deep in the human psyche. Through our stories and our language, we pass on from generation to generation that night is dangerous. And we try to banish it by turning night into day with more and more artificial light. We equate light with safety and reason and virtue and civilization. Yet we cannot find the evidence that more light is making us safer and reducing crime. We do find evidence that light that is harsh and unshielded and misdirected does make it harder to see at night. And we deny ourselves and our children the chance to discover that we are pretty good at seeing in the dark once our eyes adapt, that we can navigate the dark safely, and that there is a world full of wonder and awe to be discovered in the natural night.

NOCTCAELADOR “love of the night”. Psychologist William E. Kelly introduced this word twenty years ago to describe an “emotional attachment to, or adoration of, the night sky”. Humans have been skywatchers for thousands of generations. It’s only in the last few that we have disconnected ourselves. Watching the cycles of Sun, Moon, and stars, we learned to tell time and create calendars. We looked up at the stars, created constellations, and filled the night sky with the stories that would pass on our experiences and wisdom to the next generation. By studying the stars, we learned how they are born, live, and die and how we are part of an ecosystem that extends far beyond our planet.

Poster of the 5 principals of outdoor lighting

We can regain what we have lost. International Dark Sky Week is a time to take a look at the artificial light we use and make it smarter. Responsible outdoor lighting is useful, targeted, low level, controlled, and warm-colored. But more importantly, International Dark Sky Week is a time to head out and to Discover the Night together. There are wonderful places to enjoy starry skies along the Kickapoo and Wisconsin Rivers as well as public programs with Starsplitters of Wyalusing. We will only conserve for ourselves and descendants what we know and what we love.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador , with the International Dark-Sky Association as an Advocate, and the International Astronomical Union as a Dark Sky Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.

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