When my mother was alive and visiting from Maryland, she would invariably complain at some point during her stay that she didn’t like it at our place because it was simply too dark and too quiet. I think about her comments most every night as I sit on our deck relishing the depth of our night sky and listening to the same sounds people have heard in our holler for hundreds of years – frogs peeping, the wind, a duo of screech owls calling one another.
I inherited many of my mother’s fears and as a child growing up in suburban Washington, D.C., I was petrified of the dark, avoiding it whenever possible. The walk from late-night basketball practice at school was especially traumatizing because the preferred, shorter route home cut through an unlit section of woods. At bedtime, I insisted on a nightlight and fell asleep to the sounds of a local rock n’ roll radio station. More than once I called out to my parents in the middle of the night, convinced there was a predator in my closet, and I regularly poked under my bed with my baseball bat in a futile search for alligators.
It happened over time and with the help of many different experiences – night compass hikes in Junior ROTC, working in the darkroom, and living by myself among them – that I eventually outgrew those fears. But it has been living in Madison County that has taught me not only to be comfortable with quiet and darkness, but also to embrace and anticipate them for the healing, solitude and connectedness they offer.
We’re fortunate, here in Madison, to have the stars close at hand, and the crickets as background music. It’s not the case in most places, certainly not east of the Mississippi River. I recently read an interview with the author Paul Bogard about his new book, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. In the Verve magazine article, linked here, http://v-e-n-u-e.com/In-Search-of-Darkness-An-Interview-with-Paul-Bogard, the author talks about the importance of darkness in our lives from health, security and environmental perspectives, as well as, the fact that it simply isn’t as dark as it used to be. He includes a map of North America made by Fabio Falchi that illustrates the change in artificial lighting from the 1950s to the projected level in 2025. It clearly shows that even the northeast corridor, around the time I was trolling for alligators and dreading my late night walks home, was much darker than it is today. The eastern mountains, including Madison County, stayed pretty dark until the early 1980s, but have steadily brightened over the last thirty years. We see immediate evidence of it in the increased numbers of security lights around people’s homes, the over lit convenience stores, and the broadened glow of Asheville. It’s disheartening for a now lover of the dark. But for my mother it could never have been bright enough.