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In praise of darkness, a waning reserve


Frightening to some, bewitching, clarifying and calming to others, darkness is a critical resource but is increasingly endangered

The word darkness has connotations of grief and illness and night and the colour black – and my own fear of the dark. Darkness is generally a negative word, a word that is heavy and sad and pulls other words down with it. Dark heart. Dark days. Dark past. Dark path. Dark mood. Dark humour.

Dark age. A dark chapter in our lives, in history. There often has to be light for everything to be well, in poems and songs and literature and buildings and life in general. In the West, light is associated with truth, knowledge, and being able to see. The dichotomy of the light heaven and the dark hell has persisted in both subculture and popular culture. Light is safety; darkness loses its power in the light – and trolls turn to stone and shatter.

‘Even forests are lit these days. We are aglow’

Astrophysics defines darkness as an ‘absence of light’, but it is a fundamental truth that darkness does not exist from an astronomical standpoint. Darkness can be defined as the perceived absence of light – and what does it matter to a small, poorly designed human whether darkness is real or perceived? When the sun is more than 18 degrees below the horizon, we achieve astronomical darkness. But you need to venture far out onto the plateau, into the desert or onto the open sea to really experience it.

When all the clouds have blown away, the sun has set and all the colours faded, the stars are there, but they are so pale, depleted. And the big city roars and shines and blinks. Even in winter, even when it is dark, it is still light: the light from Oslo reaches up to 200 kilometres out of the city in every direction. Humans are among the animals with the poorest night vision and the more you look at what is illuminated, the less you see of everything else, of the landscape, of the night sky. Today, some 80 per cent of North Americans and 60 per cent of Europeans live in a place where they cannot see the Milky Way. 



Source: DeAgostini / Getty Images

Constellation represented in a drawing from The Book of the Constellations of the Fixed Stars, by Arabic astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903-986)

Norway is the land of the polar night. North of the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t rise or set, instead crossing the sky beneath the horizon. Due to high mountains and narrow valleys, the polar night extends down into Norway, to Rjukan in Telemark, for instance. When Rjukan became an industrial town, a cable car was built up the mountainside so the workers could get some light during the Christmas period. They now have a lot of artificial light, and sun mirrors in the town centre. Even forests are lit these days. We are aglow. Cars and street lights, floodlights, neon lights. The constant blinking and bustle from televisions and computer screens, mobiles and LED lamps. At night, everything is transformed into crackling, luminous noise.

Although it’s hard to deny that night and darkness are linked, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute defines night as the period between midnight and 06:00. I find definitions stating that night is the time when an area of the Earth is turned away from the Sun, making it dark, misleading. This suggests, for example, that Svalbard doesn’t have nights from the beginning of April until the end of August. Or doesn’t have days from November until February. This suggests that over a year the North Pole and the South Pole only have one night and one day. 

‘Research continues to discover more and more areas where light is causing harm’

Over 90 per cent of all animals in Norway sleep though the winter, but since we are ‘subtropical, diurnal animals with regular access to food’, explains zoologist Petter Bøckman, we only need to sleep at night. ‘The dark tricks us into believing we need more sleep in the winter’, he continues, ‘but we don’t really.’ Our circadian rhythm means we need both day and night, light and dark, activity and rest – we’re not designed for summer with no dark, and definitely not for the Nordic winter. There are stories about people who went mad in Svalbard, but it wasn’t during the polar night that they snapped – it was when the light returned. At first it’s nice, when the midnight sun looks like it’s bobbing on the surface of the sea, painting the clouds and sky pink and purple, but as summer draws in, it rises higher and higher into the sky, becoming a white orb that just keeps circling and circling, draining the life and colour from everything. One of the first things we learnt up there was to smear washing-up liquid on the bedroom windows and put up aluminium foil so that less of the relentless summer light could get in. So that we could sleep.

Humans started by lighting fires and torches. Then, ten thousand years ago, they started burning oil in containers. Animal fat, plant oil and petroleum were used as fuel over the years. Oil lamps were the main source of artificial light until science really figured out electricity. Gas was used for a while before lamps were finally lit using electric energy. The first electric lights, carbon arc lamps, emerged in around 1850, providing a bright light that was sometimes used for outside lighting. Then came the carbon filament lamp, which was better suited to general use. Then in 1879 renowned American inventor Thomas Alva Edison invented the incandescent lamp, which had a long service life, and also developed ways of supplying the public with electricity. Skien was the first city in Norway to make electric light available to the public, in 1885, but it wasn’t until after 1950 that most Norwegian homes had electric lights. This was a game changer in a country with such dark winters. 

When the incandescent light bulb was introduced, our sleep was reduced by an average of one and a half hours. The EU banned these lamps in 2012, and since LED bulbs are much more energy-efficient, there are lights on everywhere now, outside and inside, all year around, all day long. More electricity was used in Norway in 2017 than ever before. Pictures taken by NASA show that light pollution, defined as ‘excessive and inappropriate artificial light’, has increased dramatically in the last two decades. There are few places left in the world not polluted by artificial light, and research continues to discover more and more areas where this light is causing harm. 



Source: DEA / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty

Natural phenomena lighten our planet, including bioluminescent beetles, jellyfish and funghi. And the Moon, the stars and the Northern Lights, depictedin an 1839 drawing of Bossekop in Norway by Rapine

Plants illuminated by street light receive 62 per cent fewer visits from pollinating insects than those in natural darkness. Artificial light also dramatically disrupts insect reproduction. The human population has doubled over the last forty years, and the insect population has halved – insects don’t need us, but we need them. While frogs can be blinded for several hours by one car passing, birds crossing the North Sea are fooled by illuminated oil rigs.

They fly towards the artificial, floating light and exhaust themselves circling the rigs. As Norwegian journalist Erlend Christian Lysvåg wrote, ‘artificial light makes night, darkness and all the innumerable nuances of nature’s own light inaccessible to us. We don’t see stars, don’t see the animals, the shadows, the distinctive details that emerge from the darkness. We have effectively stunted our sensory perception and would no longer cope if the power suddenly cut out for good. We are unable to orientate ourselves, unable to navigate – unable to live, really’.

An organisation called the International Dark Sky Association is fighting for the preservation of the night sky, and 18 American states have adopted laws against light pollution. In New Mexico, for example, all bulbs brighter than 150 watts must be shielded, and if they are not they must be switched off from 11 o’clock at night until sunrise. Some states have done so much to preserve the night sky that tourists and stargazers are now flocking there to experience the darkness. Being able to experience true night, a starry sky in all its glory, is a human right. The organisation is also working to preserve the darkness in parks and landscapes. It has certified 35 places around the world so far and, in the autumn of 2018, the Cévennes National Park in France was made an International Dark Sky Reserve, thereby becoming the biggest park in Europe to have achieved this status.



Source: Tom Hegen

Tom Hegen’s photographic series The Greenhouse captures human-altered landscapes. LED lighting enables year-round cultivation of crops in the Netherlands, causing egregious light pollution, which is becoming increasingly widespread and detrimental to our mental health

In La Palma, the ‘Sky Law’ was introduced because an important astronomical observatory is based there. The brightness of all street lights is reduced by 50 per cent at midnight, making the light softer and more orange. All the lights point down at the ground, and those that break the Sky Law face large fines. Other observatories around the world have been rendered useless simply because they have not managed to shut out the steadily increasing light pollution. 

Nature has more natural light to offer than just daylight – which encompasses direct sunlight, diffuse sky radiation and light reflected by the Earth and terrestrial objects. Milky seas are a luminous blue phenomenon that can only be seen during the night when the sea is in motion and small species of plankton release the light they have absorbed during the day. There are also bioluminescent beetles and funghi as well as the Northern Lights and the Moon and stars. Even deep down at the bottom of the sea, in the depths of the Mariana Trench, almost 11,000 metres beneath the surface of the ocean, where you would expect it to be dark, it’s not. There are plants and jellyfish and other creatures that emit light and glow in the dark. 

‘We need the night. We need rest. We need quiet’

Plants and planets and stars and all living things are born and grow before they dwindle and die. And between these points, during our lives, we oscillate and pulsate, between light and darkness, between slumber and activity. The Universe is the greatest mystery of our existence, and when we hide the night sky behind too much light, we also deprive ourselves of an infinite amount of knowledge. The stars aren’t just the beginning, but also our continuation – the night sky has shaped our culture and our stories and will be there as long as we exist. There is comfort to be found in that. 

For a long time the festive season was characterised by dark days, rituals and traditions intended to prevent too much contact with creatures from other worlds, dark forces, ghosts, spirits, the living dead. The night of 13 December was Lussi Night – when the she-demon Lussi walked the Earth. From the 13th century until around 1700, it was widely believed that this was the longest night of the year. This night marked the transition into the polar night, when all the ghosts and trolls and otherworldly creatures were unleashed on the world.



Source: Samuel Lecocq

For half the year, the residents of Rjukan in Norway are starved of sunlight, as the sun’s arc remains below the mountains. Instead, locals can visit solariums, offering ‘UV ray baths’ and body oil such as these two samples of ‘Out of Sun’

When our vision is compromised, our imaginations run wild and we become more aware of things that cannot be seen directly, merely sensed. As psychologist Asle Hoffart argues, the dark makes his thoughts, imagination and feelings – and physical sensations – clearer. He also delights in how uncertain and frightening the dark is. Even though I have been afraid of the dark for as long as I can remember, I now know that the scarcity of darkness is more frightening than darkness itself. Italian researcher Francesco Benedetti, who studies light therapy, says you’re not afraid of the dark, but in the dark – just like rats are terrified in the light because if they go about their business when they can be seen, they’ll be caught and killed. Humans have always fought darkness and cold as if they were our enemies. The cultural dichotomy light/darkness has perhaps kept us from seeing that there is something peaceful and soft to darkness.

I miss the stars. And I miss myself, high up in the mountains as a little girl, in much-too-big grey house shoes in the snow. I would look up, with my dad, with my siblings, we would just stand there and draw lines between the stars with our imaginations and try to understand what our dad explained about the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt. And we may have forgotten that we were getting colder and colder, we forgot about the past and future, we forgot about everything until we remembered our hot cocoa and ran back in. We would light a candle. And let the night descend.

Today, darkness has become a scarce resource and humans have trouble sleeping. Artificial light can lead to diabetes, breast cancer, obesity and a long list of other health issues. Sleep disorders have become a global health issue. One reason may be that our bodies cannot adjust to all this artificial light in the way it adjusts to the natural variations in daylight. It enters our brains, the artificial blue light there is so much of in LED, outdoor lighting and in the light from all the screens we bury our faces in at night – and it tells us it is daytime. This, in turn, halts the production of melatonin, the darkness hormone that makes us tired, lowers our body temperatures and readies us for sleep. And we need the night. We need rest. We need quiet. As Norwegian poet Jon Fosse wrote, darkness has to do both with, ‘not being able to see anything’, but also with ‘being able to see the stars, in a certain sense being able to see the Universe’. He concludes ‘You can never see further than in the dark’. 

This piece is based on An Ode to Darkness by Sigri Sandberg, translated by Siân Mackie, Little, Brown Book Group, 2019

Lead image: for populations that can literally no longer see the stars, NASA’s ‘Black Marble’ project (below) of 2016 is a sober illustration of the anthropogenic growth in light pollution on Earth. Courtesy of Nasa

This piece is featured in the AR April 2020 issue on Darkness – click here to buy your copy today