Book Review: Under the Stars

“When the sky is naturally dark, other lights are revealed, some of which – like the night sun – we didn’t even know we were missing out on. With too much artificial light there is a darkness of a different kind in our lives.”

Matt Gaw was inspired to explore the nocturnal world by his ten year old son who, arguing for a later bedtime, complained about having to spend so much of his life asleep. Gaw realised that he had not experienced the world at night except when it is artificially lit. He started to go on walks, especially in places where true darkness still exists. There has been recognition recently within the environmental community that, in man’s quest for personal safety, the prevalence of artificial light is another way he is damaging our increasingly fragile ecosystem.

“By chasing away darkness and hiding the cues given by natural light we have created another imbalance in the natural world that impacts on plants, pollinators, mammals, birds and, eventually, us.”

Before coming to this understanding, Gaw goes out into the night to gauge his reaction to the removal of light. He ponders why people are so often afraid of the dark. Children grow up with stories of monsters and other dangers. Throughout history, rulers would impose curfews on their populace under the guise of safety but, more likely, to prevent sedition. Groups would cluster together and post lookouts. City gates would be locked during the night hours. Darkness was associated with the morally corrupt and lawbreakers. Predators lurked in shadows where dire deeds could occur unseen.

Contemporary society retains many of these fears despite lights now shining bright – particularly in cities – throughout the night. As well as walking around his local vicinity, Gaw visits various locations: a remote beach in East Anglia, a difficult to access forest in Scotland, woodland on Dartmoor, a Scottish island designated a Dark Sky Community. He discovers true fear when he loses his bearings. He discovers the wonder of the Milky Way when visible to the naked eye. For comparison, he also visits London where the lights never dim. He reflects on the effects of night working on people, and the damaging confusion artificial lighting causes in other creatures’ behaviour.

The wonders to be discovered are interspersed with the realities of the natural world – red in tooth and claw – potentially perilous if disrespected. Gaw takes risks in his nighttime journeys that could have ended quite differently.

At the start of the book the author is unfamiliar with even basic astronomy. By the end he has become familiar with many constellations. This book is about so much more though than star gazing. It is a study of yet another disconnect man now has with nature and the damage this has wreaked. It is a reminder of the health benefits of darkness, the effects on circadian rhythm. It is an appeal for man to take notice of his actions – to pause and consider.

The writing is rich and poetic in places. The author is passionate about his subject in a way that draws the reader in. A beautiful elucidation on the importance of returning to a more natural darkness. An illuminating walk through the wonderment of night.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: A Tale of Trees

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A Tale of Trees, by Derek Niemann, provides a potted history of British woodland, and details the devastation caused after the Second World War when farmers and other landowners were subsidised first by the government and then by the Common Market to bulldoze their plots of ancient woodland in order to convert them to arable use or conifer plantations. All land was expected to be managed with the aim of maximising economic return. To these modernisers, wood was simply a slow growing crop.

The author explains the difference in ecology between ancient woodland, mixed use replanting and regimented conifer plantations. The benefits of ancient woodland to the fragile ecosystem was not taken into account in the drive for increased food and timber production after the war. A complex habitat that had taken millenia to create could not quickly nor easily be replaced. The skills required to maintain such an environment can be lost in a generation.

This is a fascinating, beautiful but hauntingly poignant account of the damage caused by short term, ill advised human thinking. Many fret over the loss of ancient buildings, works of art and historic artifacts yet fail to appreciate the value of what man working sensitively with nature, of which he is a part, has created over many centuries. There is beauty but also utility. It is only in recent years, too late for large swathes of ancient woodland now lost forever, that value is being understood. A healthy ecosystem is an asset, even if this cannot be measured in monetary terms, and is required for healthy people as well as other living things.

To stem the destruction, support was required from government which had financially encouraged such actions – described in the book as being akin to setting a madman loose in an art gallery with a Stanley knife.

“He has signed a petition to parliament that has a straightforward demand: Give all ancient woodland statutory legal protection. Surely that’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, since there are so few of them?

He has sent me the reply he received […] Woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th century. Perhaps this may be true, but […] If the paintings of the National Gallery were at risk, would we be happy with a response that said Britain has lots of paintings?”

With the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to understand how such desecration was allowed let alone encouraged, yet when there is money to be made such actions are still all too easy to believe. Protections are seen by some as a nuisance. Valuable assets to be managed for the benefit of all can be resented by those thereby prevented from maximising their personal monetary gain. Consider how art is purchased for investment potential rather than aesthetic appreciation.

Although dealing with a specialist subject the writing is clear and accessible. Anyone who has enjoyed the peace and beauty of a bluebell wood will have sympathy with those who fought to save these national treasures. What this book offers is an understanding of how much additional value they provided – their loss is devastating. That some are now attempting to do what they can to reverse the damage is a beacon of hope.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Short Books.