Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Afraid of the dark?

This year's Knight scholar, Ian Cheney screened his documentary The City Dark in the Wilson Lecture Hall.  The film made me think more about light and night pollution than I ever have.  His journey in making this film lead to unexpected discoveries which were fascinating - see the film.  The Q&A with director, writer, and producer Ian Cheney made the experience truly special with excellent questions from students for over half an hour.

Consider this post as a teaser to see the film, rather than a review, and more of a reflection of how it resonated with me.

After the thought-provoking film, I began walking back to my apartment at Wood House and noticed our lighted campus.  I could see down Brickrow from Wilson to the Metcalf Bookstore - a mark of a safe campus, yet felt a new sense of guilt for the generous light from which one could easily read a book.  I felt nostalgic for my first couple years where there were fewer lampposts and many more shadows.

A Frost sonnet, "Acquainted with Night," echoed in my head, especially the third line.

I have been one acquainted with the night. I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain. I have outwalked the furthest city light. I have looked down the saddest city lane. I have passed by the watchman on his beat And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain. I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet When far away an interrupted cry Came over houses from another street, But not to call me back or say good-bye; And further still at an unearthly height, O luminary clock against the sky Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right. I have been one acquainted with the night.

So that's what I tried to do, outwalk the furthest campus light.

I headed to the cross country hill.  My eyes noticing lights everywhere,  a pink hue to the clouds, and a scimitar moon - with a star or a possible planet a few inches to the right above the moon.

To be honest, I wish I knew my stars like my father, a sailor, who once navigated by star light in the Virgin Islands.  He had a telescope that as children we played with like a toy, losing parts to his chagrin.

Yet on the hill tonight, in the shadows behind a wall of remaining pine trees, I could still see all ten tennis courts, light near the hocky pond, and distant cellphone towers and truck lights flashing from Interstate 80.

I was sad to see so few stars and more clouds than I should.

I thought of Peter Lee, former physics and astronomy teacher, and his frustration with night pollution.  My first year, seven years ago, on a similar night, I needed a walk before bed, and I came across Peter in the observatory.  It was a memorable experience for me, yet he was disappointed. Forlorn, he said, there used to be more stars to see.

However, alone tonight, I was still reminded of how insignificant I was in the grand scheme of moon and stars and universe and global commerce with trucks rumbling all night across the country, and cell phone messages whirling faster than bats.

I simply stood and wondered.

The paradox of progress - and connection via technology - that disconnects us from nature and darkness.  

The dark.  The fear of the unknown.  The fear of uncertainty.  

I wonder what is next?

No light can tell us that.

Fear not the dark.