On holiday one Easter in deepest Galloway, I realised to my shame how much of a town mouse I had become.
It was 20 years since I'd lived in the country, in which time I'd lost my rural backbone. In those days I was a tenant on a farm. At night the place was so dark you couldn't see your boots, although you could hear the poachers crunching past the house with their evening's loot. While I lived on my own, I never gave the blackout a moment's thought, other than to enjoy the peace and loveliness of it. But fast forward two decades and the absolute lack of light outside the cottage was unnerving. Every rustling leaf became the tread of a burglar, or worse. The scuffle of a fox or a badger chased away sleep, as did the unfamiliar sensation of being blanketed in darkness, a reminder of one's vulnerability as one of the senses was obliterated and the night-time world came into its own.
It took several days to adjust to the fact that the night could be this black. Thereafter, the beauty of it was overwhelming. In fact, beautiful is too small a word. As constellations appeared overhead like a frozen display of fireworks, it was obvious that a starlit sky is not merely a celestial Sistine Chapel, but is vitally important in other ways too.
I was back in Galloway last weekend, at the Wigtown Book Festival (which runs until Sunday). Dark Skies is one of the programme's themes this year, and nowhere is that more appropriate because in 2009, Galloway Forest became one of only four areas in the western world, and the first in the UK, remote enough to qualify as a Dark Sky Park. Apparently it has a Bortle 2 rating, the highest level of darkness achievable on land (only far out at sea can the night sky be clearer and a Bortle 1 label attained).
Certified by the Dark Sky Association, an offshoot of the British Astronomical Association, Galloway Forest's status is not just a star-gazer's badge of honour. Naturally astronomers want people to be able to appreciate the night sky. Since town lights create the night-time equivalent of a pea souper, blotting out the firmament, we are increasingly cut off from what used to be an integral, and in some cases essential component of life. Putting aside their great spiritual and mythical influence over the millennia, the heavens once had a significant practical function, be it for finding the way home or predicting the weather.
But the importance of being able to see the stars goes deeper than this. The Dark Sky Association is part of a growing international campaign to reclaim the night sky not only for human view but for our physical, environmental and economic well-being. As its advocates show, much street lighting is not only inefficient, beaming at the sky rather than the ground, but it is also too strong. The consequences of light pollution can be serious, both financially (it's estimated to cost the UK more than £1 billion a year) and medically. Studies have shown a link between artificial light and cancer, disturbed sleep and impaired immune systems. And it's not just us who are affected. All sorts of urban wildlife are troubled by perpetual light, their body clocks thrown out of order, as anyone will tell you who's been woken by a robin chirruping madly at midnight.
Not surprisingly, resistance to reducing city lighting comes mainly from fear. No-one likes the idea of walking down an empty and poorly lit street, yet there's evidence that bright lights make people more aggressive rather than less. It has also been proven that the lower the wattage, the less crime is committed.
Perhaps the greatest and saddest irony of this century, however, is that, at a time when space exploration is a reality, and when images from Mars are being beamed back as if they were snaps from the seaside, we rarely get a chance to see the stars or planets for ourselves. What was taken for granted by our forebears is now only visible if we seek out the darkest corners of the land. There are many good reasons to visit Galloway, but until astronomers descended on it, I'd never thought bright lights were among them. Now, they're probably its strongest claim.
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