Turn Off the Lights
Vol. 4 Issue 3, Fall 1999
By Janis Jaquith
This article was originally published by the International Dark-sky Association and is reprinted here with permission.
Go ahead, call me cranky if you must. Or call me a pain in the neck, but my neighbors are driving me crazy. No, they’re not noisy and they don’t borrow tools and not return them. It’s the lights.
Let me explain. I live way out in the boondocks of Virginia. Or, at least, I used to. I built the first house in this untouched paradise, feeling guilty about chopping down soaring hickories and oaks to make room for myself out here. For a few years, all I saw from my house was mountains and woods and pond.
Except at night.
At night, I saw a black velvet sky hung thick with fat stars. I saw the nebula in Orion’s sword, all seven sisters of the Pleiades, the north star, the broad, jagged path of the Milky Way. Incredible. Like a planetarium, but without the entrance fee. Even while lying in bed at night, I could look across the room at my window and see a tall rectangle of stars. This was a miracle I never grew tired of. I have routinely seen the big dipper reflected in the glassy surface of the pond. Well, you can imagine how I felt a while back, when I rushed through dinner in order to stand on my front porch and have a look at the Hale-Bopp comet.
You see, my patch of paradise has become a sprawling neighborhood, with three houses visible through the trees, just beyond shouting distance. During daylight hours, they all but disappear. Nighttime is another story.
My neighbors, like me, have escaped to this rural area from densely-populated suburbia. Unlike me, my neighbors are afraid of the dark. They illuminate their houses on all sides with blinding floodlights.
In suburbia, this is a good idea. Floodlights deter burglars. Out here in the boondocks, far from the road, your neighbors are too far away to see someone skulking around your house. If anything, the floodlights make a burglar’s work easier, revealing the window you’ve left open or the ladder at the back of your house.
So, here I am, settling onto the bottom step of my front porch, when I look up and, squinting into the glare, I count five floodlights blazing at me from these three houses. One of the houses is reflected in the pond that separates us, so there are, effectively, six lights. I feel as though I’m being interrogated, and wonder what crime I have committed to deserve this.
Unwilling to give up, I cover my eyes with my hands for a few seconds, allowing my pupils to dilate, and then raise my forearm to eye level, trying to block the lights from all three houses. I am moderately successful. I think I see the comet. It looks like a smeared star with a suggestion of a tail.
My heart heavy with exasperation and a kind of grief, I give up and go back in the house. Big deal. A blurry star. My sky struck days are over.
But wait. A few days later, I pull into my driveway in the early evening. As I leave my car, lugging a bag of groceries toward the house, I am overtaken by the rich blackness of the evening. And by the heavy splattering of silver stars. A miracle has happened: my neighbors houses are dark, invisible.
And high above the treetops I see it: this imposing, show-off star, a feathery white peacock trailing an extravagant tail that grows longer and longer as I stand there in the chill stillness, hugging the bag of groceries. And I am profoundly grateful to witness this, grateful to be alive and in this place at this moment.
Some of the best things can only be seen when you turn the lights off.
I should probably tell my neighbors how much their lights bother me, or, better yet, how much they’re missing. Alas, I am a coward and would rather have them see it in print than tell them face to face. And so, the next time I make a wish on the first star of the evening, I know what I’ll wish for. More stars.