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.