Book Review: Under The Stars – A Journey Into Light

Under The Stars : A Journey Into Light by Matt Gaw (Elliot & Thompson)

If you look up at the sky at night from your front step, back garden or high-rise window what do you see? Try it now (if it’s night, and it’s not cloudy) are there stars? Are there loads of them, can you even see the Milky Way? If you can then I’m feeling a little envious right now. I live on the edge of a small market town very near Oxford. It’s pretty dark in our garden, we have a small wood at the back so there are no street lights directly on it and (I think) you can get a pretty decent view of the stars on a very clear night. But you can also see the lights from the road, from the houses around us, from the actually very annoying security light a neighbour just had installed. As in most parts of the UK there’s a very definite sodium orange and LED blue glow to the edges of our night here.

Prompted by his son telling him the average human spends 26 years of life asleep, Matt Gaw questions why we turn away from the night, and sets out to explore our dark landscape. He is in foreign territory on his first night walk “…the physicality of twilight surprises me […] the air itself is a tangible mesh. A veil or threshold to be crossed…” . It is as if the night is not for us to step into lightly, we must cross with care into an environment our senses are not quite attuned to. Out in the forest near his home there is a lot of tripping up, the only light is coming from the snow, clouds obscuring the lights of nearby Bury St Edmunds make this night darker than usual, and it affects Matt deeply. We ignore the night, our writer realises, as we hardly ever experience it at length; humans have always turned on their lights and pushed the night away. There are more night walks to come with all manner of nights experienced, including a spine-tingling walk in ‘the deep old dark’ in Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor.

In order to see the stars Matt takes himself and his family to Scotland ‘under the guise of a holiday’. It’s really lovely to have his family in this book (a great deal of nature writing seems focussed on the individual). I do a lot of my exploring with the family along – we compromise on who goes where and when, I go on a long knackering walk, and my husband and son will go to the pool; we all enjoy the sea and a good clamber, but I’ll hike a few miles along a cliff too. Family Gaw go off to the Galloway Forest so Matt can see stars over this Dark Skies Park. Having spent a moonlit night walking Covehithe beach, observing our lantern satellite’s transformative effects on the night-experience, he is keen to find out how it feels to encounter the stars on a moonless night.

The stars are much less bright than they used to be; in the Early Modern period they were more plentiful and even now – in dark sky locations – are said to cast shadows. The Galloway forest is home to an observatory dedicated to raising awareness of light pollution, it houses telescopes enabling the viewer to see stars galaxies up to 2.5 million light years away. The irony of our technology allowing us this proximity as we simultaneously retreat into a “sickly soup of man-made light” is not lost on Gaw. Stepping outside the observatory and just looking up he finds the experience of seeing so many stars overhead is overwhelming.

Far from being a smooth dome of black and silver, in the proper-dark we can see distance, stars that are close and far away, cold and hot. We can recognise asterisms and constellations, and the Milky Way. Reading this I remember the first time I saw the Milky Way, out in the far west of Ireland, it was a truly magical experience. I was living in London at the time, where actual darkness doesn’t exist. In fact, our own galaxy is no longer visible to 77 percent of the UK population, “many have never seen it…so they do not mourn it”. Thanks to our old pal shifting baseline syndrome the expectation of what we’ll see in the night sky has dropped, basically people don’t know what they’re missing. Our writer regrets not getting his family out to see the starry spectacle, but does make up for this later, on Coll, with a starlit beach walk.

Our environment is highly lit at night, people work all night long, being able to easily light our indoor and outdoor spaces has made this much more common. But sleep deprivation affects humans very badly, leading to mistakes and injuries, as well as more long-term medical conditions. Artificial light – and lots of it – may have freed us from nature and the ‘gentle swing of day and night’, we are slow to adapt and it comes at a cost, but at least we have a choice, Our brightly lit nights also have an adverse effect on animals and plants, with implications from the top to the bottom of the food chain. Light is as much a pollutant as plastic waste or carbon emissions, and we need to take action. Gaw concludes that it will take legislation to encourage local authorities to dim or turn off lights for ‘reasons other than cost’ (though I can’t help thinking cost is usually a great motivator!). As individuals we need to become ethical light consumers and, more than anything, step outside and acclimatise ourselves to the night and its natural light.

Under The Stars is a wonderful book, Gaw tackles his subject expertly and manages to go into great detail about this huge subject in about 200 pages (I’ve read some pretty long books recently, and love them, but sometimes it’s good to read something in a couple of nights!). I’d recommend this to anyone who’s not only curious about the night sky, but also about the cultural and environmental implications of over-lighting our world. As we start to think more holistically about our environment and the crisis it is in we need to educate ourselves on so much, a return to a more natural night must surely be part of that; this book is a good place to begin; as is the simple action of putting on a big jumper, going outside at night, and looking up.

My thanks to Alison at Elliot & Thompson for providing a review copy of Under The Stars. Now in paperback – Feb 2021.

The ‘Reach for the Stars’ card is by Agnes Becker, you can find her wonderful work and shop via Instagram @wearestardustuk

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