To celebrate the winter solstice, today’s Morning Edition from NPR News played a fascinating story about the Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve, which is untouched by light at night. Located in southwestern Ireland, the place is surrounded by mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. This reserve is one of only three gold-tier Dark Sky Reserves in the world, and it’s the only one in the Northern Hemisphere.
Many astronomers and amateur stargazers travel to the area, renting a room in a hostel where they don’t sleep at night. Instead, they are outside gazing at the stars. Residents keep the lights off to preserve the dark. The stars are so numerous it’s difficult to pick out constellations.
I would absolutely love to go there, especially in winter.
Winter is refreshing: snow falls, bright and beautiful, the promise of an exciting day; landscapes rest beneath the white cover; diseases and pests hide; and no one protests curling up under the covers and reading a good book.
Most of all, winter is dark.
Starting this spring while I still lived near a city, I felt that I hadn’t been surrounded by darkness enough. I lived in the country, but I could see city lights reflected in the sky. Those lights combined with a blinding security light made the night feel like day, similar to the effect New York City’s Times Square has on the evening.
When I moved to the farm in October, the lights weren’t as bad, but it’s still not completely dark. I can walk down the driveway, hoping for dark skies, but orange, ugly light still glows on the horizon, reflecting off the clouds. When I’m trying to sleep, the security light seeps through the blinds and onto my wall. The white light from my phone charger glows bright. My eyes try to shut it out, but my brain says, “It needs to be darker! More dark!” My sleep doesn’t always fare well, and I feel restless.
Researchers are concerned about this flood of light and what it might do to us. For example, circadian rhythms and natural clock cycles can thrive better when we are cognizant of our light limits. Looking at phone or computer screens right before bed can prevent deep sleep or negatively affect our melatonin levels. The effects can snowball, leading to decreased productivity during the day and even dangerous situations while driving.
We need darkness.
That statement may seem counter intuitive. Throughout human history, stories tell of terrible happenings in the dark. Monsters live under the bed in the dark. Evil is marked by shadows. Dark woods can be terrifying.
But good things come, too, from the darkness: deeper rest. A restored mind. More productive days, which can begin with a deeper appreciation of the sun rising out of the dark night.
And, most of all…just like with the Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve in Ireland…
Darkness reveals the stars.