Re-inhabiting Darkness: A Conversation on Art & Environment with Paul Bogard and Christopher Cokinos
As the third in a series of cross-posts with Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, this Proximities features a conversation between environmental writers Paul Bogard and Christopher Cokinos.
Bogard will be at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, speaking about his new book, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, on Monday, November 18, at 7:30 pm.
Paul Bogard is author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light (Little, Brown) and editor of Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark (University of Nevada Press). A native Minnesotan, Bogard has lived and taught in Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Reno, northern Wisconsin, and Winston-Salem. A graduate of Carleton College, the University of New Mexico, and the University of Nevada-Reno (PhD in Literature and Environment), Paul is now an assistant professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he teaches creative writing and environmental literature.
Christopher Cokinos is the author of The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars (Tarcher/Penguin) and Bodies, of the Holocene (Truman) and is working on several projects right now: a poetry collection based on the paintings of Rene Magritte, a natural history of North American wild cats and an article on the centennial of the death of the last passenger pigeon. He teaches at the University of Arizona.
Paul: I remember I was up in Quebec at the Mont Megantic National Park, and one of the folks there said to me that closing off our view of the universe isn’t the worst thing we’re doing environmentally, but it is symbolic of the worst things we’re doing. I think he’s right—we are losing or have lost our connection to the surrounding universe by polluting the sky with wasted light. And this disconnection from the rest of creation reflects the disconnected way we live these days. And when we live disconnected from the universe, from the rest of creation, from the environment, why would we care about it? That’s one issue. The other is that we are tempted to imagine that we are the most important game in town. That human beings—and maybe especially human beings like us—are the most important concern. That the world revolves around us. When you’re standing under a naturally dark night sky, with the Milky Way bending from one horizon to the other, those kinds of misconceptions have an opportunity to fade away.
Chris: I agree, Paul. It’s always amazing to be in the company of pure urbanites who haven't seen or have forgotten their childhood views of a dark night sky. They're rightly astonished. I wonder sometimes if there isn't something going on that has to do with our evolving as a species that had to spend a lot of time looking at the ground to get food—small game, seeds, nuts, fruit. Then at night all those seeds of light up there, like some sort of sustenance for the psyche. A real night sky—a dark one—must activate endorphins or some other lovely brain chemistry... more so than computer-generated CGI stars...
Paul: I do like this idea of the stars as sustenance for the psyche. I received a wonderful call during a talk show this summer from a listener who talked about being a teenager and experiencing all the pressures and anxieties of that age, and then driving out into the country and staring up at the stars. Standing under the Milky Way, he said, his teenage problems didn't feel so big, and he gained the confidence to carry on. A view of the stars has fed humanity in so many ways for all time: astronomy, philosophy, religion, creativity, myth, and more. It's absurd to think that losing that experience hasn't had a significant impact on who we are. And I think natural darkness in general, not just a starry sky, is vitally important for us. Again, for all of human history until only very recently, real natural darkness was an everyday human experience. Now, we've lost that. The costs are many. I'm interested, Chris, what you think about the fact that almost no one sees shooting stars anymore.
Chris: Well, if folks can't see shooting stars anymore, I guess that means fewer wishes are coming true...
So what recourse is there to re-inhabit darkness in the 21st century urban environment?
Paul: I like the idea of "re-inhabiting" darkness. That—the fact we do not inhabit the darkness, that darkness is so seldom our habitat—seems to me to be at the root of the problem. From the moment we wake to the moment we sleep, we live in light. We fear the dark, both the literal and the metaphorical. We forget that humans have lived in darkness for as long as there have been humans. We forget the value of that half of our existence. So how do we re-inhabit the dark? In our homes, we can turn our lights down as we get closer to bedtime, and we should sleep in the dark. Outside our homes, we can seek out time in the dark, whether it's going out into the desert to watch the stars, or sitting on our porch or in our backyard in the dark. When was the last time you sat somewhere and watched the sun set and the night rise? We would be wise to become more conscious of darkness—to write about it, to make music about it, to read about it, to learn about it, to get to know darkness again.
I think they want us to talk about research and creative nonfiction here, and how it's different than scientific research. I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts on this...
Chris: I think the key for artists, writers, and activists is to find ways to re-enchant all of us with darkness or animals or forests or whatever puts you under its spell. (By the way, my partner is always keen on low lights at home and going out… she loves candles...). I'm a fan of sidewalk astronomers who show people sights through telescopes. John Dobson, as you know, was a pioneer in this regard, and his low-cost telescope design has put the stars within reach of thousands of people who otherwise could not have afforded the hobby of amateur astronomy. This really is a golden age for amateur astronomers and stargazers, and I'd like to think that there's a bit more consciousness out there, from city councils to statehouses, on the need to put light on the ground at night and not waste energy throwing it up in the sky. So I think we re-inhabit the night sky, that powerful darkness and what it holds, at the scales of the personal all the way to the political. Books like your new one, and the anthology, Let There Be Night (honored to have been a part of that!), help spread the message. People going to the national parks see dark skies and are exposed to education and signage about the need to minimize light pollution. We move from our encounters with a great night sky to wanting to preserve as much of that at home, which means spending time in the civic realm. It's a good cause. Even county commissioners are wowed by Saturn and the Orion Nebula...