CALHOUN'S WONDERMENT OF DARK SKIES - Highlands Voice: A Test Case For Darkness

(09/30/2016)

HIGHLANDS VOICE: A Test Case for Darkness

By Hugh Rogers 2014

Paul Bogard has chased darkness to Sark, a tiny island in the English Channel (the first International Dark Sky Island), back to Flagstaff, Arizona (the first Dark Sky City), and to some really dark places: Death Valley, Cadillac Mountain, Great Basin National Park. Now, maybe he'll come to Calhoun County.

In late September, I was reading Bogard's elegiac, comprehensive book, The End of Night , when Cindy Ellis alerted me to a West Virginia Public Radio story about researchers from the University of Tennessee testing that small central West Virginia county for a possible dark sky park.

UT's Tim Ezzell told Beth Vorhees, "We looked at maps and charts and sure enough Calhoun was about the darkest place left in the Eastern United States." He said they had determined there was a market for darkness tourism.

"We did a brief survey, sent it out to a few astronomers to see what they thought and within days we had three hundred responses." Amateur astronomers, they concluded, would be likely to come. They would buy food and lodging and spend money for a place to stargaze.

Curious, I called Ezzell in Knoxville.

He's the director of UT's Community Partnership Center, and has long experience in rural economic development. He told me he had visited Calhoun County three or four years ago on a study for the Appalachian Regional Commission. The county "couldn't get moving," he said.

"The ARC sent us back." His team met with stakeholders who struggled to identify the county's assets. "One person said, 'It's really dark here!" Eureka!

What prompted this person to see darkness as an advantage? Darkness is treated nearly everywhere the way wolves were in the West: a threat to be exterminated.

Anyway, the UT crew had little else to go on. They went back to their offices, looked at data sets, did market research, and began to see possibilities. Calhoun was one of the two or three darkest spots in the Eastern United States, and it was accessible: only thirty miles or so from an Interstate Highway, within reach of Pittsburgh, Columbus, and other population centers.

Calhoun County Park, a beautiful farm that had been donated to the county, had been underused. It had three good viewing areas. Although it's close to the county seat, Grantsville, hills and woods limited sky glow.

Ezzell led a workshop on taking advantage of darkness, and equally important, protecting that resource. "Once lights are turned on," he said, "they don't get turned off." The county has begun changing existing lighting to more sensible systems that put light where it should go, and only where it should go, to help people feel safe. Under consideration are zoning "overlays" close to the park.

It' s remarkable when darkness becomes an issue anywhere. Calhoun County is confronting fundamental questions: what good is artificial light? what harm can it cause? what can we change to make it more effective and less intrusive? Few people in the rest of the world are aware that their use of light could be questioned.

Of course these questions are being asked only because darkness was identified as an economic asset.

Ezzell says, "It's like anything, once it becomes scarce it becomes more valuable. And darkness is becoming more and more scarce all over the world."

In The End of Night, Paul Bogard quotes John Van Dyke, in The Desert (1901): To speak about sparing anything because it is beautiful is to waste one's breath and incur ridicule in the bargain. The aesthetic sense—the power to enjoy through the eye, the ear, and the imagination—is just as important a factor in the scheme of human happiness as the corporeal sense of eating and drinking; but there has never been a time when the world would admit it.

In our public discourse, nothing has changed. But what has changed in regard to darkness is that we have discovered more about its importance, beyond aesthetics; we have learned that light, as now employed, does not make us safer—in fact, it's bad for our health.

Here's Bogard, in an interview: "One phrase that makes me cringe is 'well-lit,' as in 'we need to have well-lit streets.' For most people, this just means 'bright' ... I'd like to see us understand 'well-lit' to mean responsible, thoughtful lighting. That means shielded lights, and that means lights that are no brighter than they need to be."

Too much light is counterproductive, creating glare that actually impairs vision.

David Crawford, the founder of the International Dark-Sky Association, calls our current array of street lights, barn lights, wall packs—the so-called security lights— "criminal-friendly lighting."

Shopping center and business plaza parking lots are now lit ten times as brightly as they were twenty years ago.

Parking lots are responsible for more than half of all outdoor lighting—and they are seldom shielded, or reduced to the minimum necessary for sight, or turned off when the lots are not in use.

You may recall the robbery of a Stradivarius violin from the Milwaukee Symphony's concert master in a parking lot after a performance last January.

Lights didn't deter the robber. Nor did they help solve the crime. He drove off in his maroon getaway van under all the lights of Milwaukee.

Loose talk from an accomplice eventually nailed him. Police work depends mostly on listening.

Calhoun County might consider a building code that's been proposed for London: "All exterior light will be directed only on the premises to be illuminated."

It shall not escape to the sky, to the neighbors, to the street. Research into health effects of excessive lighting—"excessive" in time as well as intensity—has focused on night-shift work, which is linked with diabetes, obesity, and heart ailments.

The World Health Organization lists shift work as a possible carcinogen. But those of us who keep "normal" hours are also affected by the loss of darkness. Our circadian rhythms are out of whack. Some medical researchers think poor sleep puts people at greater risk for health problems than smoking, poor diet, or lack of exercise.

Light at night is worse for wildlife.

It affects orientation, predation, competition, reproduction, and circadian rhythms.

The average citizen may be dimly aware of this, and respond with a regretful shrug.

Still, arguments based on other-species endangerment are striking closer to home these days. Ebola is the latest reminder that we cannot cut ourselves off from the rest of nature.

A longer review would sing the praises of darkness. Bogard knows it's hard to sell its charms to people (most of us) who've never really experienced it.

Here's a factoid: astronomers say it's only when you can see 450 stars at a time that you get a feeling of infinitude.

Here's another: your eyes are still adjusting after two hours in the dark. After reading this book, you'll want to go outside in a very dark place.

You could begin by sampling Calhoun County's experiment.

ASTRONOMERS STARGAZE THE UNIVERSAL SKY AT CALHOUN PARK - Dark Skies Astronomy Center Development

CALHOUN'S DARK SKIES - County Could Become Tourist Destination For Astronomers

DARK SKIES STARGAZING CENTER AT CALHOUN PARK MOVES FORWARD - "Vision Pretty Big"


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