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.

National Dog Day

“Every dog has its day” was coined before Shakespeare, but centuries passed until dogs were given their Day. Not until 2004, and a dozen years after National Corndog Day, were they given a deserved honor, and National Dog Day came around again today.

"Lilah" by the author's cousin Jo Bemis
“Lilah” by the author’s cousin Jo Bemis

There are lots of reasons to be grateful for man’s best friend, whether it is a pedigree pooch or mushy mutt. This is my tribute to our duo, Lilah and Ben. Most human allegiances tend to be binary— we are for the political left or the right/ for globalization or against it / like Marmite or loathe it, and my loyalty is with single heart and mind to the canine tribe. Do I hear exasperated meowing?

So familiar is joyful barking and tail-wagging when we come home that it is easy to forget to be astonished that we give dogs not only safe harbor and a free rein in our homes but an intimate place in the lives of our family. They originated not so many thousands of years ago from a common ancestor with the wild wolf. In a previous post, I likened that genome to a Swiss Army knife because it had the potential for molding by selective breeding to create the huge range of body types and temperaments in modern dogs. It was not only their intelligence that made them attractive for domestication, because there are smarter animals, but no other beast is as willing to please or matched in loyalty and companionship.  Perhaps most remarkable of all is their “preadaptation” for a long list of services they render us: therapy dogs, sheep dogs, rescue dogs, guide dogs, guard dogs, drug/ bomb sniffing dogs, racing dogs, hunting dogs and circus dogs. It is even claimed their superior sense of hearing and smell can give us early warnings of earthquakes, diabetes and cancer. Canine science is currently resurgent to understand these innate talents.

When did this mutual affection between species grow to the proportions we enjoy today? Starting as casual camp followers, dogs evolved to be our “best friends,” sharing our food, fireside and, dare I say, bed!

Before the 19th century, there were plenty of street dogs, and our fear of rabies gave them a wide berth. Pet animals were mostly regarded as the frivolous lapdogs and playthings of aristocratic homes. Lady Isabella Wentworth wrote: “Fubs is a mighty favourite, at first my niece was afraid of her jumping upon her, but Fubs is so subtle as to fawn upon her, and kiss her, and comes gently to her …” (Twickenham, April 2, 1705). A century later, Lord Byron eulogized his dead dog, Boatswain, in a poem which, although possibly satirical, reads heart-felt:Byron

Industrialization of Victorian Britain probably contributed to an earlier warming of relations between man and dog than in other countries. Prosperity and cities were growing, familiarity with rough farm dogs was a shrinking memory, and “dangerous” wild animals were extirpated from the countryside long ago. It was okay to be sentimental about pets that were obedient and courageous guardians of the home, and everyone loved stories of canine heroism. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert started a royal tradition of keeping dogs, which became a fashion that trickled down to every social class. The celebrated painter Edwin Landseer created a portrait of the Queen sitting with her favorite dogs, and was commissioned by upper crust families who wanted to immortalize their own. The arrival of photography in mid-century offered an affordable image for other people, and the family dog often featured on the front of penny postcards for mailing.

Our Ben & Lila - chums
Our Ben & Lila – chums

The same was happening in American towns and cities, causing Mark Twain to quip, “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”

Our sensibilities to animal cruelty grew with proximity to animals as we recognized and sympathized with their experiences of pain. Humane societies were launched, and the Battersea Dog & Cat Home in London rescued strays from vivisectors and dognappers who ransomed them back to their owners. As the poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were secretly preparing to marry in September of 1846 her spaniel Flush was stolen a third time, and the couple had to pay six guineas to recover the pet from seedy characters in Whitechapel. Valuable breeds of dogs are still targets for thieves. (Philip Howell: At Home and Astray: The Domestic Dog in Victorian Britain).

A surging demand for animals bred to type created the ancestors of today’s pedigrees and professional breeders and, sad to say, puppy mills. Local and national dog shows soon followed, the first in Newcastle in 1859. The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City was inaugurated in 1877 where, like Cruft’s Dog Show in London, dogs are judged by breed standards and an overall champion is chosen annually. Promoted from the cur on the street, dogs’ days have gotten better and better and for many of us our home is incomplete without this furry friend. Some dogs are considered elite, a few have become TV celebrities while others are fashion accessories for the masses, though all of them are too innocent for conceit.

There is so much to celebrate about these animals that I have not yet reached the bottom of my list, but before closing I must mention one last virtue. After years of mutual affection and intimacy between owner and dog, the passing of one leaves whichever survivor as a chief mourner.

Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner by Landseer (1837). V & A, London [public domain]
Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner by Landseer (1837). V & A, London [public domain]