Milky Way above hills

An Acre of Darkness

By Ellen Goldstein 14th Annual Contest in Nonfiction Finalist

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The sky is a text, our original screen.

I take the trash out after sunset. I haven’t turned the outside lights on, and the cool October night wraps itself around me. The sound of the river a quarter mile away gives me a sense of distance and scale. The small crash of the garbage can lid is almost too loud, startling. When my smelly task is done, I look up as a reward. It is always a shock, rural skies. The eastern horizon glows faintly with distant towns, and the heft of the mountain is faintly visible, darker even than the sky. The longer I look at the bright swirl of stars, the more I see. The Milky Way initially seems like a fault in my vision until my eyes adjust and the misty starry path becomes obvious. Before I came to Vermont, I lived in towns and cities glutted with light. I could not see the Milky Way for the microcandelas scattered through the Earth’s atmosphere, bringing blue light to the darkness.

Only 17 percent of the human population live where the night sky is intact, untouched by light pollution. These locations—the open ocean, Central Africa, northwest Brazil, Sub-Arctic Canada, and tiny patches of Oregon, Montana, Maine, and New Mexico—are 1 on the Bortle Night-Sky Scale. City skies are 8, appearing orange or white, and inner city skies at 9 are brightly lit with only the moon and a few of the brightest stars and planets visible. The majority of the population live at 5 or above: the Milky Way is faint or nonexistent. In Bortle 1 skies, Venus and Jupiter are so bright they can affect a person’s night vision, and the Milky Way casts a notable shadow on the ground.

I grew up watching the sky. My father was an astronomer and liked to point out stars as we walked the dog through our small neighborhood (Bortle 5) tucked between the university and the edge of town. Over the years I learned to identify the crooked W of Cassiopeia, the steady blue summer star Vega, Orion, always easy to spot, and Jupiter, my dad’s favorite because he studied its moons. The names of Jupiter’s larger moons, Io, Callista, and Ganymede, were almost as familiar to me as my sisters’ names called through the house.

One summer morning, when I was 11, I found my father, not in his regular seat on the couch reading or doing calculations, but rather standing at the living room window.

“What are you looking at?” I asked, sidling up next to him.

“Oh hello, daughter,” he said absently. The stereotypes of the absent-minded professor were mostly true for my father. “The city is installing a streetlight at the base of our driveway.”

“That’s good, right?” There were already lights at the two ends of our residential street. Just past our house, the road dipped into a creek bottom that was dark even during the day. My mother thought kids didn’t come trick-or-treating to our house because our part of the street was so dark.

“I wish they wouldn’t put up a light,” he said, not quite answering my question.

“Why not?”

“Because the light will obscure the stars,” he explained patiently in his slow professorial voice. I hadn’t considered that. I quickly became outraged on his behalf.

“How can they do this? Can’t you do something? This isn’t fair!” As the youngest child I was intensely interested in fairness. But my father didn’t respond to my outrage. Instead he thought for a moment and then went outside to have a quiet word with the city worker installing the light. The worker didn’t have the authority to change the placement, but he promised to spray black paint around the edges of the globe, so the light would only point down. My father ambled up the driveway, satisfied.

When I moved to Boston (Bortle 8) in my early 20s, my mother told me to walk under streetlights, which seemed to me counterintuitive. I worked nights, and between grad school, my job, and seeing friends, I was often walking home from the train around midnight (a fact I downplayed to my mother). I preferred not to be seen or to stand out in any way. I wore a black wool coat like many young Bostonians in the early aughts, carried a nondescript bag, and otherwise dressed like a ten-year-old boy. I walked all over the city, under artificial lights, in what I realize now—between my white skin and my androgynous looks—is privilege. Cops at the train station never called me out, as I saw them do young men of color. I was not singled out to be sexualized or perceived as a threat and harassed by authority.

People illuminate the night for safety, for advertisement, for decoration. When I lived in the Boston suburbs (Bortle 6), my pretentious neighbors installed spotlights on their own house, so it would be on display all night long. But mostly cities are illuminated for safety. Studies say that a certain amount of artificial light at night reduces crime. But there is no evidence that more light reduces crime correspondingly further. However, city governments continue to install more and brighter lighting, especially in poor neighborhoods. Between 2014 and 2018, New York mayor Bill DeBlasio spent $80 million to put up generator-powered construction-site lights at certain intersections in poor neighborhoods and around public housing (Bortle 9). These floodlights are part of a program called Omnipresence and cast light about 200 times brighter than car headlights.

I watched a short film about Omnipresence. One resident of public housing interviewed said her family didn’t need to turn on lights in their apartment at night: they could watch TV and hang out by the light from the floodlights. “The light will come in, and it takes over the room.” Video footage shows sidewalks and playing fields lit bright as day. “If you went [and stared] at the sun for a while—that’s what it’s like,” she says. 

Not long after watching the video, I startle awake at 3 a.m., unable to go back to sleep. I stare out my windows into the country darkness. The ridge is black against the moon-brightened sky. Although I can’t see the moon, its cool light silvers the windowsill. I imagine what it would be like to have car headlights shining directly through my bedroom window. What if the lights were 200 times brighter than that? Sleep continues to elude me as I think back to other places I’ve lived. In Boston, my bedroom window was three feet from the wall of the neighboring triple-decker. A little orange light filtered in from the streetlight at the corner, but it didn’t disturb my sleep. It would have occurred to no one to shine floodlights at the apartment I shared with another grad student and a middle school science teacher.

For all that we talk about disappearing glaciers, mass extinctions, and rising sea levels, few people talk about losing the night sky.

Darkness is yet another liberty that can be taken from you. In 18th-century New York, Black and Indigenous people walking alone were required by law to carry a lantern so they were visible to others. Unlike my mother’s advice about walking under streetlights, this rule was not made for Black and Indigenous people’s safety; instead it was a way for white people to police the movement of people of color. Any white man could stop people who weren’t carrying a lantern or whose lantern blew out in the wind. Scholar Simone Browne studies how Black people have been surveilled over the centuries. She links the lantern laws to New York’s Stop and Frisk laws in the late 1990s, which allowed police to stop and search anyone they deemed suspicious and led to pervasive racial profiling and harassment.

Dr. Browne sees a continued progression to the floodlights, which were put up just after Stop and Frisk was found unconstitutional in 2013. Shawna Nadybal and colleagues call Omnipresence an effort “to control [Black and Hispanic Americans] through urban design” by using “artificial lighting to facilitate nightime policing and surveillance.” Mayor de Blasio says this explicitly in 2014 when announcing improvements to public housing: “One hundred fifty light towers [will] light up the areas that have previously been obscure and problematic, and make it easier for the NYPD to do its job.” Each generator is loud, runs all night, and is clearly marked with the police department logo. The light coming through apartment windows is steady and disrupting. A violation. A message: you have no privacy. There is no respite from the police state.

It’s not that these areas shouldn’t be well-lit. They should be lit more sensibly and less intrusively: with lights at a lower intensity that cast their light down rather than scattering in all directions. Omnipresence’s floodlights are well above the American Medical Association’s recommendation for safe levels of light. The effect on violent crime is minimal. The effect on the health of the people who live under those lights? Not so minimal.

People have a right to darkness. Being unable to turn off the lights, to go outside and step into darkness, to achieve darkness in your own home is a stress to the human system. One study found “women living in neighborhoods where it was bright enough to read a book outside at midnight had a 73 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than those residing in areas with the least outdoor artificial lighting.” In response to the cycles of daylight and darkness, our brains have developed patterns of responses that regulate the nervous system, hormonal activity, brain function, and cell cycles. But exposure to artificial light at night disrupts this regulation, which can lead to metabolic and cardiovascular disorders as well as an increased risk of cancer and detrimental effects on mental health.

I think about the way my body relaxes in nocturnal darkness when I feel safe, when I am at home. Anxiety manifests in me as the feeling of being watched and judged, even when I’m alone. After a series of work meetings, having to see myself all day on camera, I sign off feeling tired and raw. I’m exhausted by holding still, by talking, by staying silent, by the specter of my face on camera with its unnerving combination of my father’s features and my mother’s way of holding herself.

I stumble outside. The darkness is a relief, enveloping, a shelter from overexposure. I take deeper breaths and let go of the conversations of the day. Without my usual visual boundaries of the house, barn, and the trees at the bottom of the yard, the night feels immense. I walk carefully down the yard to where trees obscure the lights from the house. The river sounds closer and louder, the sound carrying in the cool night air. The hiss of car tires against the road lasts for longer than I’m used to. These smallest details make the night feel otherworldly as my senses adjust. Air thickens around me, a rising mist as the earth releases the warmth of the day. An atmospheric sigh. And what of the scale of the night? Massive and bright celestial bodies are pinprick blue, red, and gold. No one notices me. No one is listening to me, waiting for me to talk or stop talking. There is only the forgiving light of the stars.

For all that we talk about disappearing glaciers, mass extinctions, and rising sea levels, few people talk about losing the night sky. I marvel at my clear rural darkness, but even so, the skies are Bortle 3. I’m looking at the sky through a dirty window that I have always thought was clean.

The sky is a text, our original screen. Throughout indigenous North America, the night sky anchors history and culture, knowledge encoded in stories of the stars and their motion. Ancient Babylonians separated the stars into figures along the sun’s apparent path through the sky, creating early versions of the constellations that Americans recognize today. The Babylonians sought political insight and divination through the stars, but the Pacific Islanders took more direct action. They followed the stars to find new land. Wayfinders divided the sky into a star compass to remember where navigational stars rose and set. They pointed their double-hulled canoes toward the horizon and populated islands throughout a thousand square miles of the South Pacific.

In his book The End of Night, Paul Bogard recalls talking to a dark sky advocate who argued that “the presence of an astronomer was the sign of a healthy ecosystem; that when the sky grows too bright for astronomy and the astronomers go away, you know you have a light-polluted sky, and whatever has polluted that sky will eventually pollute other resources, given time.”

Humanity of course did this backward. We polluted the land, air, water, and then the sky. We’ve affected the land so severely that many scientists and environmentalists think we have entered a new geologic epoch. The Anthropocene is the epoch of humanity, the time when every earth system—the hydrosphere, cryosphere (ice systems), atmosphere, biosphere, and geosphere—has been changed by human activity. Stratigraphers identify geological time periods by markers that can be found around the globe. There is disagreement about the markers of the Anthropocene, but many agree that it began in the 1950s, with the proliferation of plastics, the growth of atomic power, and surprisingly the ubiquity of the domesticated broiler chicken, the bones of which are found around the world. Atomic bombs have been detonated “at the average rate of one every 9.6 days [between 1945 and 1988] with attendant worldwide fallout easily identifiable in the chemostratigraphic record.” Fallout, plastics, and chicken bones forever documented in rock.

Urbanization is another feature of the Anthropocene. In the 21st century, approximately 83 percent of people in the United States live in urban areas. Civilization is lights, coffee shops, stores, open all night. All lit. It’s not urban storefronts, however, that brighten our night skies. It’s parking lots and industrial areas lit bright as day. It’s unshielded lights that cast as much light upward as they do on the ground. It’s floodlights, car dealerships, and football fields. All the lights, documented in our skies. We are burning the book of the night.

What would it be like to have this nocturnal richness every clear night of the year?

In 2016, toward the end of a difficult autumn—a sick friend, work disappointments, the pretentious neighbor who had taken to berating me because my yard was not up to her standards—my spouse Mike and I escaped to Vermont for the weekend. We rented a house in a hollow with tall windows looking over the yard, which was really just a clearing in the woods: leaf-littered and bristling with moss. On one side of the clearing was a thick fern fringe and the woods, which dropped sharply down to the stream. The last yellow leaves clung to the trees on the hill. There were no visible neighbors, except twice a day a car with rainbow stickers would ease down the dirt road by the house. The women lifted their hands in greeting if they saw us, but they did not stop.

At night, I opened the screen door and stood on the patio. I didn’t have to find a dark spot, because the whole yard was dark (Bortle 3). I swayed slightly as I looked up, unbalanced by the stars above me. They clustered, it seemed, around the trees, splashing across the clearing, sepia silver. I stared until my eyes ached with trying to see more and more stars. What would it be like to have this nocturnal richness every clear night of the year? I remembered my parents driving through the countryside at night: my dad peering through the windshield at the stars, my mom scolding him to keep his eyes on the road. They would have loved it here, too.

I felt enfolded by layers of memory and darkness, comforted by the liquid language of the stream. At home in the Boston suburbs we lived on a busy street, and after a while the quantity of people made me feel anxious and exposed. It was partly my neighbor who watched and judged us, but it was also the people in the park next door, the people walking down the sidewalk or waiting at the light. But here in the woods, I could imagine that nothing beyond the house and clearing had been shaped by human hands. That illumination came from only the sun and the moon and the stars and that the only eyes observing me were those of animals. It was the illusion of the wildwood that made me tell Mike when I went back in, “I never want to leave.”

Environmental historian William Cronon argues that the environmental movement often prioritizes preserving wilderness and un-peopled places as a way of checking out from the messiness and social problems of the human world. “The flight from history that is very nearly the core of [our perception of] wilderness represents the false hope of an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world.” The wildwood is a myth. Two centuries ago these hills, like many foothills of Appalachia, had been completely cleared for sheep grazing and subsistence farming. Around me were the skinny trees of second-growth forests, drained bottomlands, and earth slumped over the remains of stone walls.

Since the late 19th century, Vermont has been considered a place where what we call today the Anthropocene lies more lightly on the land. This was the result of a marketing campaign in the 1890s, when the state wanted to build up Vermont as a tourist destination and a desirable place to own a second home to counteract population drain as agriculture waned. (People were tired of farming rocks.) The state paid writers to write articles that celebrated Vermont’s bucolic landscape of fields, rivers, and mountains as a contrast to industrialized urban areas. Promotional material from the turn of the 20th century played into the eugenics movement claiming that “Anglo-Saxon” and Yankee Vermont was “pure” and “how America used to be.”

One magazine article suggested that “city people—of proper moral bearing—could infuse rural districts with new life. In return, they would benefit from exposure to those time-honored values and traditions upon which the United States was built.”

“Proper moral bearing” had more to do with race and ethnicity than anything else. The 1957 edition of the Green Book, a compendium of hotels and guest houses where a Black traveler could stay without fear of discrimination, had only three entries for the entire state. Until the late 1950s, print ads for hotels and resort often included a succinct “Gentiles only.”

Even through the second half of the 20th century, Vermont marketed itself as being “unspoiled.” Unspoiled by what exactly? Or whom? It’s something of a racist dog whistle, a counterpart to “urban” meaning sketchy or dangerous. Even today, on the tourism website, only one out of 13 stock photos in the Think Vermont! relocation campaign shows a person of color.

I fell for the myth of the unspoiled rural area too—not because the overwhelming whiteness of Vermont appealed to me, but because I wanted to live somewhere with fewer people, where rivers (mostly) kept their natural shape, and I could see the stars at night. My county has 55 people per square mile, compared to Massachusetts’s 839, or New York City’s 29,729. I felt some pangs moving to the second whitest state in the nation—What would I be missing? Is it retrogressive to move somewhere with so little diversity?—but I had the privilege to only have pangs.

Danielle Purifoy argues that the romanticization of the wilderness, and the escape from the Anthropocene, is part of what keeps the environmental movement so white. She writes as a newly minted PhD and one of the few women of color in an environmental studies department: “I entered this field because in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I learned some important lessons from my bosses and community partners at the City of New Orleans, who were nearly all black and nearly all women…. Advocacy and scholarship about protecting communities of color are rarely called environmentalism because those communities are still largely not considered places worthy of protection by environmentalists.” By prioritizing the conservation of supposed wilderness, some environmentalists shy away from environmental justice issues such as hunger, asthma, cancer, lead contamination, and light pollution as a way to avoid their own complicity under capitalism.

And here I am in Vermont with my clear skies and insects and birds while elsewhere insects, birds, and clear skies are disappearing. Global light pollution has increased by 49 percent in the 21st century, with no sign of abating. My escape is as illusory as the wilderness.  



Ellen GoldsteinEllen Goldstein is the author of Stuff Every Beer Snob Should Know (Quirk Books, 2018). Her writing has been published in journals such as About Place, The Common, Shenandoah, and elsewhere, as well as in the anthologies Spectral Lines, Not Quite What I Was Planning, The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and Queer South. She is working on a book about stargazing.

Header photo by Denis Belitsky, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Ellen Goldstein by Michael Gerhard Martin. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.