Dispatch № 60: Skyglow

Rows of apartment buildings in western Saitama City, Japan

35°52’09.9″N, 139°37’47.9″E

In my childhood in rural western Massachusetts, the night sky was embroidered with stars, and on summer nights, I would sometimes lie out in the yard, looking up. Watching for shooting stars, I contemplated the immensity of the universe and felt impossibly small in the most marvelous way.

Many years later, I laid down and gazed up from the floor of the Gobi Desert, a place with a sky so dark that the Milky Way practically slaps you in the face. There’s no missing it.

Last January, I stood out on my balcony, looking out over my neighbor’s garden, appreciating the moon and that particular smell of a crisp winter night. The view of the sky was limited, but it was something, at least, and there were still some stars to see.

With some effort, I counted eight.

Of course, living on the edge of the biggest, most populous megacity in human history1 means that light pollution is simply a fact of life. Outdoor lighting is important for various reasons, among them safety and utility, and while we could probably manage it much better, ridding ourselves entirely of its ill effects seems impossible.

One problem with light pollution is that it erects a semitransparent wall between us and the night sky, in between the finity of the human world on Earth and the infinity of the universe in which it floats. It interrupts our connection with an aspect of the natural world that has been important to humans for far longer than the span of recorded history.

In the Nabta Playa2, in what is now southern Egypt, is perhaps the oldest known astronomical observatory, dating back some seven thousand years. It predates the better-known Stone Henge by two millennia.

And it is possible that the cave paintings at Lascaux made reference to constellations3 some seventeen thousand years ago. Meanwhile, many of the distant descendants of the people who made these paintings, referencing arrangements of stars so very long ago, may not even be able to see enough of the requisite points of light in the urban night sky to be able to connect the dots today.

The history of homonins stretches back millions of years, and while early ancestors like Homo habilis may not have engaged in the paired acts of looking up and trying to understand the presence and movements of celestial bodies, it’s still been a notable activity for a very long time. Likewise, the ascription of mythological meaning to these things has been a universal practice for ages, though with innumerable variations between different communities, over vast areas, and over extraordinary stretches of time.

There are many ideas about when spoken language emerged, but if we take Chomsky and Berwick’s model4 as a point of reference for the moment, we can suppose that spoken language may have developed as long ago as two-hundred-thousand years. With this long a history, it is no surprise that storytelling is such a deep-seated part of human culture. And though nearly all the oral traditions of prehistory have been lost, a handful were preserved as civilizations adopted written language in the last three to five thousand years. Despite the general loss of knowledge and lore from prehistory, the tradition of storytelling has continued uninterrupted from time immemorial through to today.

Storytelling encompasses an immense range of themes and styles and purposes, having been used from very early on to entertain, to teach morality, and to explore the universe and our place within it.

And that last part, the exploration of our place in this world and the space that lies beyond, began with the act of looking up and wondering, searching for explanations.

That I can only see a handful of stars here, even on clear winter nights, saddens me because I like to observe them in their great plurality, rather than as simply the sad few that are bright enough to show through the skyglow and remind us, feebly, that they are still there. And I cannot say what the impact of this is in the broader context of culture and community in the twenty-first century, but I cannot imagine that this celestial disconnection does not come at a cost.

  1. The ranking of cities and megacities is contentious, and the biggest, etc changes depending on which criteria are used, but if not the biggest in absolutely every evalution, Tokyo is at least nearly at the top, no matter how you look at it ↩︎

  2. https://astronomy.com/news/2020/06/nabta-playa-the-worlds-first-astronomical-site-was-built-in-africa-and-is-older-than-stonehenge ↩︎

  3. Business Insider: Archaeologists figured out that some of the world’s oldest cave drawings don’t just depict animals — they’re constellations of stars ↩︎

  4. Berwick, Robert; Chomsky, Noam (2016). Why Only Us: Language and Evolution, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 9780262034241 ↩︎