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By Ron Scopelliti
“Milk, no sugar, on the dark side.” That’s how I’ve been ordering my coffee since at least the late eighties, and it’s drawn its share of comments ranging from Darth Vader jokes to John Cafferty impersonations. But it’s only recently that I’ve been drifting more and more to the dark side.
Not as far as my coffee, or in any Sith Lord sort of way. I’ve simply been thinking a lot lately about the physical concept of darkness.
This actually started many years ago after having a conversation about light pollution with Smithfield Times astronomy columnist David Huestis. It had to do with the problems all the stray light in the world creates for anyone trying to look at the stars. I’ve been wanting to write a serious article about that for many years but, like many things in my life, I never got around to it.
It came back to my mind a few weeks ago when I read about the Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary in New Mexico. In 2016, it was declared the first such sanctuary in the U.S. by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) The Dark-Sky Association, despite their name, are not a group of Marvel Comics super-villains. They are, in fact, a group of advocates and educators dedicated to preserving the night sky.
Located in the Gila National Forest, Cosmic Campground features four concrete pads where people can set up telescopes, and strict rules for camping intended to preserve the area’s darkness, and prevent anything from compromising the night vision of visitors.
It’s a cliché to say that without darkness you can’t have light, but that’s never more obvious to me than it when I look at the stars. A dark sky makes all the difference. I remember camping on a mountainside in the Berkshires about 20 years ago, and noting how the stars stood out from the background in an almost unnatural way – like a bit of green-screen photography in a 1970’s science fiction movie. One of my friends commented that it was the first time he really understood why our galaxy was called The Milky Way, seeing the white streak of stars stand out so boldly from the black sky.
This whole darkness thing, however got me thinking, which almost always has unintended consequences. The more I thought, the more I wondered if I was selling darkness short by only considering it as a contrasting background for the bits of light that I was really interested in looking at. Is the value of darkness simply due to the way it provides contrast for light?
IDA’s website, darksky.org, says otherwise, noting that artificial light disrupts ecosystems. Birds that navigate based on starlight and moonlight can get lost, or crash into buildings. In some cases, light pollution can make nocturnal predators less effective, or make prey animals less able to hide.
The saddest thing the site mentions is that light pollution can disorient baby sea turtles who hatch on the beach, and try to find their way to the sea by looking for the bright horizon over the ocean. If it’s going to save a baby sea turtle, I’ll gladly give up all the lights on Rte. 295. Oh wait – are there any?
Setting astronomical and ecological factors aside, darkness adds a sense of mystery to our lives. The dark is fascinating because of the things it hides. It somehow makes our lives richer to think that there’s something hidden in the shadows, either literal or figurative, and regardless of whether that hidden entity is good or evil. For instance, as much as we fear having our personal information stolen and shared through the “dark web,” I’d be willing to bet that there’s not one of us who isn’t somehow intrigued by this dark, hidden, malevolent entity lurking just beneath the cute puppy memes on our Facebook pages.
Without those dark shadows, “film noir” would just be film, Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” would be significantly more upbeat, and “The Dark Knight” would have probably been shot entirely in daylight.
Speaking of which, I remember years ago admiring the art of “Batman: The Animated Series,” then finding out that one of the things that gave the show its unique look was that all the backgrounds were painted using light paint on dark paper. It was the polar opposite of Bob Ross. I guess, just like you can’t have light without darkness, you can’t have happy little trees without dark, brooding Gotham.
So tonight I’ll be doing my part to save the night sky by turning off my outside light a little earlier. And next time I stop by the Marquee Café, instead of ordering my coffee on the dark side, maybe I’ll just take it black. Sea turtles and star gazers need all the darkness they can get.