I live in a dark neighborhood, but there’s this one house lit up like a carnival midway every night, all night, whether the owners are in town or not. What can I do?
– Kathy Podmayer
By Howard Johnson
This defender of the night sky extends to Kathy his deepest sympathies. He dreams of a community where everyone down to the smallest child understands that there are times and places where artificial light should be kept, and other places, like Kathy’s bedroom window, where it is best kept out.
Such communities do exist. Ketchum, Idaho, is one of them. Ketchum is home to the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, the largest such light-protected region in the country (see idahodarksky.org). Asked whether the townspeople there appreciate having deep, rich, dark skies, the instigator of the local Dark Skies Ordinance, Steve Pauley, M.D., known locally as Dr. Dark, said, “People love it. When we started out they weren’t so sure, but now they like it. They like seeing stars when they walk their dogs. I don’t get complaints anymore, just compliments.”
Closer to home, Kathy faces a problem of neighborhood education. She must help her neighbors, all of them, understand the connection between brightly lit homes and the ability of all members of the community, and their children, to enjoy restful sleep and a clear view of the stars. As a first step, Kathy should first determine what species of neighbor she faces.
A sheep moving into a new neighborhood just wants to follow the herd. If the sheep came from a city where brightly lit homes are the norm, she may copy that look and feel in her new neighborhood out of habit, without noticing that homes in the country look different. Here we value the beauty of the night sky. Once a sheep comes to understand that, she may surrender her lights without further difficulty.
The proud rooster, on the other hand, the kind of rooster that thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow, feathers his nest with all manner of LED floodlights and landscape uplighting. To his eye, gregarious exterior illumination represents the very epitome of style and class. The rooster you must approach as if walking on eggshells. Any suggestion that the beauty he sees may not appeal to the eye of his neighbor will make him madder than a wet hen.
A ‘cool’ approach
Scott Stluka suggests a cool approach to neighborhood conflict: “Slow down here. First thing is to go over with a couple of cold ones in the evening and start showing them the constellations. Then suggest they try turning the outside lights off so you can see more. Then have some more cold ones. Mission accomplished.” First strike, anyway.
A small turtle makes his nest on the beach surrounded by other turtles, for security. One night a firefly happened by and whispered in the little turtle’s ear, “If only you had some light you would be much safer.” The following day the little turtle swam out into the ocean and festooned his shell with thousands of tiny phosphorescent plankton. That night, glowing brightly, he slept soundly, secure in the knowledge that now, should anything happen, the other turtles would surely see and rush to his aid. The next morning, one seagull said to another, “You know, I would never have noticed that turtle except for the plankton.”
More light leads to less crime in areas where people are watching and can do something about it. If you live in an area with 20-acre minimum zoning, your neighbors probably wouldn’t even notice, to quote Uncle Lewis in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “A dump truck driving through a nitroglycerin plant.”
If it’s real security you want, get some infrared cameras. Light up your yard (not the house) with an even spread of infrared light. Nobody can see it. Mount a camera next to the driveway to capture images of license plates. Program the system to alert your smartphone if it sees anything moving. This is a serious approach to security that doesn’t risk turning your home into a carnival midway.
What do you think about light? If you have opinions or questions concerning lights, lighting, the sky, or anything else, please write: email@example.com.
Howard Johnson, noted author and technologist, lives south of Winthrop. He helped found the Methow Dark Sky Coalition, which seeks to preserve and protect the nighttime environment of the Methow Valley. This is the third of several columns he will write about the topic.