Beauty of the Night Sky

PingAn Tower , Shenzhen , China
Photo: Aaron Greenwood (Unsplash)

Lord Byron’s first meeting with Lady Wilmot Horton at a fashionable party inspired him to compose the poem:

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies

Of all that’s best of dark and bright

 Meet in her aspect and her eyes …

The black mourning clothes worn by the young woman heightened the sensation of shining skin and eyes. He loved the balance of contrasts, the ‘bright’ never overwhelming the ‘dark’ because they ‘meet.’

But ever since the medieval period, and probably much earlier, bright and white represented ‘good and pure’ whereas dark and night have been ‘repellent and scary.’ Dante accepted this dualism, making darkness a metaphor of the plight of a sinner separated from God:

I woke to find myself in a dark wood where the right road was wholly lost and gone …

Hell was pretty dark (except around the flames!) whilst heaven bathed in celestial light. Bubonic plague pandemic became the Black Death. And yet, after the first lines in Genesis celebrating the creation of Light, there is no negation of Dark because everything was jolly ‘good,’ both day and night.

I’m getting to my point that we celebrate the ascendance of Light. Ever since Edison the world gets brighter. When I flew over cities in developing countries years ago I only saw pinpricks of light below. Now they glow and glitter like American and European cities. We love the spectacle of illuminated city centers, laser light shows, Christmas lights, Fetes des Lumieres, etc. At home we no longer have strained eyes from writing by candlelight as Byron did. Our lives aren’t regimented by the rotation of the globe since tungsten liberated work and leisure to make 24-hour cities and illuminate the path of travelers and expose threats. We embrace the hegemony of Light over Dark for its many benefits and discount the costs in disrupted biorhythms.

Have we gone too far by disrupting nature that evolved in stable light/ dark cycles? Evidence accumulates that unnatural light impacts animal migration, mating behavior, feeding, and predation. Even insects are casualties. A study in England found fewer moth caterpillars feeding near streetlighting or under lights set in previously dark fields, and they fared worse under broad spectrum LEDs than yellow sodium lights. Moths are important pollinators and food for birds and herps. Even breaking one link in a chain weakens the whole.

The International Dark Sky Association brings attention to our obsession with turning up the light. Everyone can help by switching off unnecessary lights, pointing them down and filtering out the short blue waves.  Where appeals to economy, entomology or ecology fail, commerce may champion the Dark. Small rural communities in the American West advertise dark skies to tourists and the Watoga State Park of West Virginia has launched a Dark Sky Project. There will be more.

We attach little value to something common until it becomes rare. Byron was inspired to write after an introduction to a beautiful cousin clad in black, but he never lifted a quill to celebrate the ‘raven tresses’ of the night sky he knew. He could step outside on any clear night to see the Milky Way that today’s city dwellers never glimpse through the veil of polluting emissions and light. They don’t know what they are missing until they see a truly dark sky.

Tribute to Sunderlal Bahuguna

Annapurna range
Photo: Annapurna range (Giacomo Berardi, Unsplash)

I confess to be an inveterate obituary hawk. The ‘vet’ bit in inveterate is telling as my compulsion comes with the territory of the latter half of life.

I don’t scour obituary columns for names I know or like or love, or even for people whose behavior I despise, for (the bell) “it tolls for thee”. Obituaries pack the history of a whole life into a tiny capsule and occasionally one captures my attention so vividly I hunger to know more and feel sad to miss the subject’s acquaintance.

I never met Sunderlal Bahuguna and didn’t even know his name until he died from covid-19 on May 21, 2021, at the age of 94. What drew me to his story by Hridayesh Joshi, a Mongabay journalist who knew him, was the transparent goodness of a life dedicated to caring for an environment that his people in the Himalayan foothills loved and needed to thrive.

As a bright and educated Indian, he gave up a potential career in parliamentary politics to serve his home district. As an early environmentalist he had a great impact nationally, even internationally, yet acclaim didn’t go to his head. He remained modest and credited much of his achievement to his wife.

As a young man he became a devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi, which says much about his character and lifestyle. He went on long marches, fasted to make public protest, fought against ‘untouchability’, and practiced non-violent activism against political and commercial oppressors of his people and the forest.

For many years he led the Chipko movement against logging companies whose depredations threatened fragile ecosystems around local communities. He organized protests against the Tehri Dam project (largest in India) for displacing of thousands of people from homes and affecting a watershed feeding the sacred Ganges.

The Chipko movement began in the 1970s in the hills of Uttarakhand, a famous destination for Hindu pilgrims and site of the 1968 Beatles Ashram. It started when local women opposed loggers by literally hugging trees (Chipko=hugging). The expression tree-hugger is often pejorative in the West, but only ignorance of its solemn history covers that shame.

Three centuries ago, hundreds of Bishnoi people, most of them women, obstinately resisted the felling of trees in their district to clear land for a new palace. They were massacred. In the end, the maharaja relented and canceled the project. The martyrs helped to inspire a modern movement of forest guardians that wins more sympathy by the year.

In his later years, Bahuguna-ji looked like a brown Santa Claus, a genial figure of gentle temperament. He practiced what he preached by living simply and sustainably, even giving up a rice diet because paddy fields use a lot of water.

We may wonder how a modest exterior with little worldly ambition can make a difference today, though he didn’t achieve all his goals (the Tehri Dam). But he had a facility for mingling care for human welfare with respect for what science knows, driven by a great fire of determination in his heart.

A life for rich pickings by an obituary hawk.

Next Post: American Goldfinch

Phosphatemia—How Green is your Water?

Phosphate in drinking water
Colorimetric phosphate test

My swimming pool has a thin green carpet. The fish and frog pond is choked with weed and slime. Even sugar water in the hummingbird feeder turned cloudy in 24 hours. What’s going on?

Now I’ve lit my pipe let’s start the inquiry, Dr. Watson.  Does the water have a common source? Is it polluted?

Yes and no, Holmes. The water originated from our faucet, but we didn’t spread fertilizer in the garden.

Hmm. Tell me, then, what can make stuff grow quickly in water?  

My dear Holmes, I’m reminded of rapidly growing dead zones in the Bay during summer, though the tides were ‘red’ with algae, never green. But if I have the same problem at home the answer must be phosphate.

Congratulations on your deduction and commiseration with the slimy state of your water. Now give it a test.


A combination of colorimetric and laboratory tests confirmed high levels of phosphate in samples from all three sources, but even higher straight out of the tap people drink from. In excess of 4,000 parts per billion, exceeding the sanitation capacity of free chlorine in the pool. How so, when only <100 ppb from the garden well and rainwater barrel?

Remember Flint, Michigan, in 2014? The city managers (that’s what they call them) switched the water supply to save money. Instead of the Detroit river where phosphate was added they drew from the Flint river which has only a low natural level.

Phosphate is added to domestic water supplies around this country, Britain and others included, to avoid poisoning children in homes that still have lead plumbing. It reduces lead in drinking water by coating pipes. Few people seem to know or ask what’s in their water. Phosphate isn’t mentioned in the James City County Water Quality Report, although plenty about bacteria.

Like other living organisms, bacteria need phosphorus to grow, and some kinds are able to liberate more from insoluble mineral. The municipal answer to lead provides more food (PO4) for bacteria and algae to grow, and that consequence is fixed by pumping more chlorine in our water.

Holmes didn’t seem worried about drinking our local water (or that in Baker’s Street, London). He is glad of a generous helping of phosphate in his diet to top up his hydroxyapatite and ATP reserves, but spurns colas supercharged with phosphoric acid for the sake of his brain.