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.