Author Shares His Love for the Darkest Skies and Most Brilliant Stars
Paul Bogard has a great gig traveling around the world to ponder the darkness of night skies and the corresponding brilliance of millions of stars.
Bogard, who is not an astronomer but a creative writing professor, was given a contract from preeminent publisher Little Brown to travel anywhere in the world for a year and report on the social, cultural, and scientific importance of darkness. Despite visions of room service in five-star hotels, his expense budget, he says, was not lavish. Still, it allowed him to travel extensively across North America and western Europe to places like New York City, Las Vegas, Quebec, London, Paris, and Madrid, as well as to many of America’s national parks, to experience light-saturated cities in contrast to dark, often remote landscapes.
Bogard secured his publishing contract with an essay about daringly cutting the headlights on his rental car as he raced, two years ago, down one of the loneliest stretches of highway in America, Highway 93, through an area known as the darkest in the continental states. He was headed to Great Basin National Park’s annual Astronomy Festival to read from his anthology, Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark.
Fittingly, Bogard returns to the park for Great Basin National Park’s annual Astronomy Festival, June 14-16. Bogard will read from his soon-to-be-released book, The Geography of Night: Discovering Darkness in an Age of Light, on Friday evening, June 15, at the park’s Lehman Caves Visitor Center. Following his presentation, park visitors will walk to a nearby area where astronomers set up dozens of various telescopes and offer an array of short, compelling presentations.
Bogard commends America’s National Park System, particularly national parks in the West, for increasingly offering night sky programs. He points out that visitors to national parks often experience a form of darkness they are unfamiliar with. Many see the Milky Way, with its delicate spill of stars, for the first time in a national park. Indeed, according to the International Dark Sky Association, for the past several decades, it has become increasingly difficult to observe the night sky. Many of our generation have not witnessed the beauty of the summer Milky Way or the mystical dance of the Aurora Borealis.
In 1999, the National Park Service organized the Night Sky Team, officially recognizing that preserving darkness is part of their overall mission. This summer, dozens of national parks, including Great Basin, Bryce Canyon, and Lassen Volcanic National Park, will offer ranger-led night programs.
As an advocate for protecting dark night skies, Bogard is quick to say he isn’t anti-light. “The technology of light,” he says, “is a real miracle. But we just don’t seem to be concerned with how we’re using it. We let it splay out, upwards into the sky, at weird angles. We have become so acclimated to light, at all times and anywhere, that we’re often not aware of all the artificial light around us.”
He notes the uniqueness of Death Valley National Park and the Island of Sark, in the middle of the English Channel, as two of the rare places in the world where you can stand in one spot and look in all directions without seeing artificial light–no glaring beacon on a warehouse, way-too-bright porch light, street lamp, or flashing highway signage.
“My goal is to simply help people become aware of the beauty and value of darkness,” says Bogard. His advocacy, along with the increasing number of night-sky programs offered by the National Park Service, is helping to make people aware of this diminishing natural resource.
Lynn Davis notes that last summer she joined author Paul Bogard on the Las Vegas Strip to evaluate the intensity of light. “It was an honor and privilege to spend time with Paul. While I certainly was aware of the brightness and all the neon, it was shocking to realize that in many places along the Las Vegas Strip it’s actually brighter at night than during the day.”