Now all the leaves are off the trees, and pole lights have taken over the night sky.
A September evening in 1988, here at Shady Grove, was my first in the country in 26 years.(Today’s kids go to counseling for way less trauma than moving from rural Lorain County, Ohio to Cleveland Heights was in 1960.) Anyway, at good dark, I stopped unpacking and dashed outside, yelling, “Let’s go look at the stars!!” That was my introduction to pole lights.
One rationale for them came from a neighbor. To my sputtered, “This is the country. It’s supposed to be dark!” he offered genially, “Well, you know old folks. Now they got electric, they want it where it shows.”
Guess that makes more sense than what we usually hear. “What if you have to go outside at night?” Yeah, if. I’m outside at night all the time. If you need a flashlight anyway, why have a pole light that’s impossible to work by? Whatever you’re handling is thrown into deep shadow.The barn aisle becomes a treacherous pitch-black maw, full of trip hazards and sharp edges, which that searing pinpoint out along the driveway does nothing to illumine.
Anther rationale is security. Well, there are burglaries all the time in the brightly-lit City, and at pole-lit farms around here. Dah – mostly during the day. But if lights make you feel secure, fine. Four keen-eared, not-too-bright dogs do alright by me.
I had ours disconnected, for one, because there was no way to turn the damn thing off. And on principle, to avoid paying for electric we didn’t need. But also for esthetics. A cloudless full moon here isn’t night – it’s daylight in a strange world. Besides the usual stars and occasional Milky Way, in 1997 we watched the most brilliant comet since the birth of Tecumseh.
But that leaves the lights on nearby property. One night, scanning less than a quarter of the horizon, I counted 57. Then there’s airglow from not-so-nearby Lexington, and the taller and brighter lights from recent freeway “improvements.” Stars? What stars?
Our electric co-op celebrated its 50th anniversary a few years ago, taking pride in how electricity had removed drudgery and isolation from rural culture. A more dubious boast was that it “showed people the drabness of their lives.” For one thing, we can argue whether worn heart-pine floors and a faded, serviceable rag rug, are any more drab than scuffed 3-year-old vinyl or matted acrylic shag. But a more insidious effect is that people who were content by lamplight are discontent by 100-watt glare.
One hot July day in 1979, working as messenger for a downtown law firm, I delivered documents to an elderly lady in Cincinnati’s East End. What should have been a moment’s contact lengthened into an hour of oral history. We sat on the porch of her spruce asphalt-shingled row house, drinking ice tea as she recounted life as the daughter, and later, wife, of Pullman car porters, of meeting “Mr. [A. Philip] Randolph,” whom she remembered as “eight feet tall!”
Then conversation took a serious turn – her observations of today’s “wickedness” – gambling, fighting, women running the streets, children neglected. I clucked, sympathized, mentioned my rural childhood and how bewildering at first were City ways.
“Mmm-hmm! Yes, child, I suspect they was. And I tell you something else. You go outside at night, look up. What you see? Used to be, you see a million stars. Nothing but stars. Now, tonight, you go out and look. You won’t see hardly a star. A little few stars.”
I wondered what to say. Surely airglow from downtown Cincinnati was not what she had in mind. No, “I tell you what I believe. They’ve done drawed up. All them stars. Looked down here and drawed back up away from all this wickedness.”
At the time, my only thought was “What a poetic image!” When my co-workers rolled their eyes and twiddled a finger at their heads, I quit telling the story. It remained just an image, half-forgotten, until, with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s words in mind, I returned to country life –
“ …said goodbye to City friends, department stores and bars.
The lights of Town are at my back, my heart is full of stars,
And I’m gonna be a country girl again.”
To Ms Lillie’s tally of wickedness, let me add greed and ambition, commercial or political, that can’t bear to see anyone live simply, that can’t be content with supplying necessities but must inflate demand by merchandising discontent, “showing people the drabness of their lives.” The past decades in finance play out the theme of wickedness: easy money, over-consumption, plastic McMansions across a degraded environment, hunger alongside obesity, farm suicides amid overproduction. Light pollution is trivial next to these.
Or is it? We have been taught to distrust (along with real foods of all kinds) both sunlight and darkness. Are we so afraid of “drabness” that we must surround ourselves with glare? Or does the glare simply keep us from realizing the beauty in darkness? Away from light pollution, other wickedness may be seen for what it is. And maybe the stars will draw a little closer.