A Light in the Desert

Some while back, National Geographic published a feature story about light pollution. It began:
If humans were truly at home under the light of the moon and stars, we would go in darkness happily, the midnight world as visible to us as it is to the vast number of nocturnal species on this planet. Instead, we are diurnal creatures, with eyes adapted to living in the sun's light. This is a basic evolutionary fact, even though most of us don't think of ourselves as diurnal beings any more than we think of ourselves as primates or mammals or Earthlings. Yet it's the only way to explain what we've done to the night: We've engineered it to receive us by filling it with light.

This kind of engineering is no different than damming a river. Its benefits come with consequences—called light pollution—whose effects scientists are only now beginning to study. Light pollution is largely the result of bad lighting design, which allows artificial light to shine outward and upward into the sky, where it's not wanted, instead of focusing it downward, where it is. Ill-designed lighting washes out the darkness of night and radically alters the light levels—and light rhythms—to which many forms of life, including ourselves, have adapted. Wherever human light spills into the natural world, some aspect of life—migration, reproduction, feeding—is affected.
I was reminded of that article by something that Jenny wrote the other day. Flying back to Los Angeles from New York, she found herself in a conversation with a college student flying home to China and a programmer for the Air Force. Looking out the window somewhere in that vast space between the Rockies and Los Angeles, Jenny called their attention to Las Vegas:
“How do you know that’s Vegas?” asked the air force programmer. How did I know? No matter what direction you approach Vegas from--southeast, northwest, or above--you just know. Vegas requires no highway marker or GPS coordinates, no billboard announcing its presence. It arises ahead out of dust as a veritable Oz in the desert, a most anticipated filling station en route to the sea, or the big square states.

Tonight it shone like an oblique Lite-Brite board, a fine-grained orange glow unhumbled by its context, a singular dimension of black.

We were an hour from touching down at LAX as Las Vegas drifted off to our right and finally out of sight, into the abyss of as-yet unlit, still frontier. What remained in sight was the city’s electrical tether, one thin illuminated line punctuated by crosshatching that stretched from the southern limits of this embodied civilization all the way under our plane and beyond. If one could dip a hand down from the air and slice through this thread with a fingernail, the city might fly away like a kite freed from its string. Until someone scrambled to plug it back into the outlet of infinite power, that is. Then the whole thing would rise from the earth again.
My own story about light: Driving back to California from Colorado by way of I-25 to I-40, we spent a decent amount of time in the darkness with only the ribboned highway for company. Coming west past Flagstaff, through Kingman and falling to the Colorado River, you could see a haze of light to the north. At first, I thought it was Laughlin, tucked as it is into the nib of Nevada pressed against the river. Later, though, passing through the darkness of the Mojave, I wanted to pretend it was Las Vegas, some slow siren song of neon in the dark. I don't know if it was, but driving back on 40 - along that thin string Jenny saw from above - it was tempting to imagine it so.


Jordan M said…
And don't forget in Joshua Tree this time last year that even in that primeval darkness where so many stars were visible there was still a soft glow on the horizon outside camp.

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