As the editor of Griots Republic, one of the best things about my job is falling down the proverbial rabbit hole every month and researching new themes and topics. I’m a lover of newness and knowledge, and I can honestly tell you that “spine” or books in the physical form are my drug of choice. Being a traveler, I naturally have tons of e-books loaded onto whatever I’m carrying at the moment, but I still always take the time to pop into local bookstores and browse the aisles. In a show of support, I also tend to purchase something in hopes that these same bookstores don’t die out before I do. Nevertheless, if I look back over my life, I can honestly say that every major shift or change was preceded by a book. A good book can often move you, challenge you to think, push you to do more, be more, or to explore and see more.
But this isn’t an article about my love of books. It’s an article about one book, one rabbit hole, and exploring things we cannot see.
On a recent trip back from the middle east, I scheduled an overnight layover in Amsterdam. True to form, I explored the city and of course ended up in a used bookstore. While there I picked over a book entitled, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, by Paul Bogard. The book was an exploration of darkness, true darkness, and the effects of light pollution. Light pollution is “excessive, misdirected, or obtrusive artificial (usually outdoor) light. Too much light pollution has consequences: it washes out starlight in the night sky, interferes with astronomical research, disrupts ecosystems, has adverse health effects and wastes energy.” (National Optical Astronomy Observatory)
Now, I know what you are thinking: “Did you really sit in a used bookstore and read about light pollution while in Amsterdam – the city of art, sex and mary jane?” Yes, I most certainly did.
While many of us “think” that we know what darkness is, the reality of the situation is that nearly two-thirds of Americans have actually never experienced it and according to the National Park Service, “Ninety-nine percent of the U.S. population lives in areas that scientists consider light-polluted.” So like some of you city dwellers out there, up until that moment, I’d never even thought about true darkness – the night sky was simply the night sky. I could see the constellations and stars clearly when traveling near my favorite place on earth, La Serena Valley in Chile, and I couldn’t when at home in New York. However, disappearing darkness and its effects on our circadian rhythms, mental wellness and wildlife had never crossed my mind. I knew nothing about Bortle scales, which measure the quality of light, or the difference between civil, nautical and astronomical twilight, but the nerd in me was awakened, so there I stood – reading.
For more information about light pollution, check out this planetarium show, “Losing the Dark,” by the International Dark Sky Association. “It introduces and illustrates some of the issues regarding light pollution and suggests three simple actions people can take to help mitigate it.”
Now, the author Paul Bogard is a writer, clearly, and a professor at James Madison University and throughout most of his book he expounds on the importance of darkness and the detriments of light pollution. Yet, through the remainder, he spends time searching and describing some of the darkest places on earth and this, ladies and gentlemen, speaks to the traveler in me. “Holy sh*t! Is this a thing,” I asked myself.
Here’s where the rabbit hole begins…
The short answer is “yes.” Searching for darkness or a 1 or 2 on the Bortle scale is definitely a thing. As a matter of fact, there are a number of places and organizations that would love for you to come out and play at night.
International Dark Sky Parks
From Hungary to Ireland and over to Texas, there are communities, reserves, and parks that have been certified as International Dark Sky Parks by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). The IDA’s certification program is similar to UNESCO in that in order to qualify, parks need to meet strict darkness standards. For the average traveler looking to explore true darkness, all you’d have to do is head to their site and choose the destination of your choice, and now you have your next camping location (if you aren’t too afraid). Aside from camping, stargazing and photography are also ideal for deep night exploration.
National Park Service Night Skies Program
If grabbing a group of friends and heading out into the darkest places with no guide sounds a bit too extra for you, then consider the National Park Service (NPS) Night Skies Program. The NPS hosts star parties, full moon hikes, and astronomy programs often lead by night sky enthusiasts and park rangers across the country. The NPS website is a great place to start, but don’t forget to check out the night sky programs at each of the national parks as well.
Night Sky Festivals
The night sky festival in South Dakota at Badlands National Park or the dark sky festival at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are two of the many night festivals available at our national parks across the United States. However, there are so many more hosted by private and public organizations. Simply Googling “night sky festivals” will yield you a host of festivals worldwide dedicated to celebrating darkness. On the east coast, the Acadia Night Sky Festival in Maine is one of the largest night sky festivals and it’s a major draw for both adults and children.
If festivals, hikes, and programs simply aren’t your thing and you want to explore and conquer, then plan your own adventure. There are companies that offer night to morning hot air balloon rides, or if you have some serious cash then perhaps you can book a ride on NASA’s “Vampire Jet,” a flying observatory. Better yet, head to some of the IDA’s firsts, like Sark in the Channel Islands which holds the distinction of being the world’s first dark sky island. Either way, the night is calling you. Will you answer?