As Night Recedes

March 16, 2017 | Posted in: Science, Sociology

William Thomas Horton’s illustration in The Savoy No. 7, 1896.

Here in the northern hemisphere, darkness is decreasing in its daily length. Light, like some rushing tide, is coming back strong, and signs of spring are fast emerging. For most of us today, artificial light keeps the night at bay and the darkness of winter is avoidable, lightbulbs blazing. But, it wasn’t so long ago that nighttime was an absolute fact, and the only remedy we had to answer this blindness was candle or lantern or hearth, and these could only offer puddles of light in an ocean of dark.

“Five hundred years ago, if you could have seen the earth from above, cities, towns, and villages would have appeared nearly as dark as the oak forests. Perhaps glints of light would have leaked through doorways and shuttered windows early in the evening, or a few lanterns would have bobbed down the lanes, but no streetlights would have shone. Within, candles and lamps no brighter than those of Roman times would have lit only a bowl of porridge, a book, a shirtsleeve in need of mending, another…. Such small light was precious and meted out sparingly. For much of the evening, people lay in their houses after dousing their cooking fires, sleeping and dreaming away the hours. If by chance on a clear, moonless night they stepped out of their intimate dark and looked up to the heavens, the stars would have been so many that ‘one could not have put a finger in between them.'” Jane Brox, Brilliant

Thy Temple is the Azure Night, Lester Ralph, The Century illustrated monthly magazine, Volume 79, 1909-10.

Thy Temple is the Azure Night, Lester Ralph, The Century illustrated monthly magazine, Volume 79, 1909-10.

For humans, night is a paradox. We adore it for romance, for wild times free of daylight scrutiny, or for stillness and rest. Yet, we fear it, for in deep night we’re blind and groping and easily frightened, and so we’ve banished darkness in most of the places we live, bathing our cities and towns and roads with electricity. The majority of city-dwellers don’t even have to switch to their night-vision once the sun has gone, so immersed are we in artificial light. The moon is dimmed and the stars are absent for the majority of us now, and few of us notice how many species call the night home:

With at least 30 percent of all vertebrates and more than 60 percent of all invertebrates worldwide nocturnal, and with many of the rest crepuscular… while most of us are inside and asleep, outside the night world is wide awake with matings, migrations, pollinations, and feeding—in short, the basic happenings that keep world biodiversity alive. Paul Bogard, The End of Night

Night Moths, William Baxter Closson (1848-1926), date unknown

Night Moths, William Baxter Closson (1848-1926), date unknown

On these shortening nights ahead, don’t fear to turn off the lights, to seek out some darkness and bask like a moth in the scents and shimmery visuals of the unlit world. We need the dark just as we need the light.

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