WORD SEARCH with Adair Jones

Night lights

Posted in review by Adair Jones on October 1, 2015

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As a child growing up among the lakes and forests of Minnesota in the 1970s, the night sky made a big impression on Paul Bogard. This was the era of “real nights”, when the Milky Way glowed above the earth, an awe-inspiring streak made up of countless other worlds, at once reminding us of our insignificance and connecting us to a larger and unknown beyond.

Sadly, this view is fading. It’s estimated that two-thirds of Americans and Europeans no longer experience real night — real darkness, in other words — and nearly all live in areas polluted to some extent by light.

“Authentic views of the night sky are quickly being replaced by a great yellow sky full of electric lights, a phenomenon astronomers call sky glow”, says Bogard, who teaches creative nonfiction at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. This idea has inspired him — and worried him — for a long time.

In 2008, Bogard compiled and edited Let There be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark, an anthology of twenty-eight essays on the value of night, written by scientists, scholars, and poets. These writers address their personal experiences of night as well as their fears about what we are losing as the nocturnal wilderness above us disappears.

End-of-Night-e1372862551772In a new book on the subject, The End of Night: Searching for Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, Bogard undertakes the journey on his own, crisscrossing North America and Europe in a quest to understand the many dimensions of light pollution.

Historically, of course, light pollution is a recent phenomenon. Before the advent of artificial light, nights were governed by the seasons, and our body rhythms were aligned with them. In only a few short centuries, things have changed dramatically. Epidemiologists have connected illuminated nights with increased rates of cancer. And environmentalists have identified light pollution as a factor endangering biodiversity, since wildlife can be unnaturally confused by, attracted to, or repelled by artificial light sources.

However, while the physical and environmental effects of light pollution on the earth’s inhabitants fascinate Bogard, he is also deeply concerned about the spiritual aspects of the loss of night. On his journey he encounters a minister who preaches “the necessity of the unknown”, and who believes his role in the community is not merely to suggest the possibility of the sacred in people’s lives, but also to “maintain the dimension of ambiguity or of the question — the essential character of doubt.” Night’s power to humble us is a power that will be missed.

Bogard’s engagement with the diminishing night sky has been lifelong. In addition to experiencing those glorious childhood nights in Minnesota, as a teenager he began to learn about the stars. “Looking for constellations quickly teaches you about light pollution,” he says.

He went on to study religion as an undergraduate and became acquainted with the wide range of myths and stories that all human cultures have projected onto the heavens. Later, with a PhD in Literature & Environment, Bogard began to research the human experience of darkness, how it has shaped us physically, culturally, and socially. As an author, Bogard works within the American tradition of nature writing, which includes such luminaries as Henry David Thoreau and the Scottish-born naturalist John Muir, as well as more recent thinkers like Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan.

In the way of all truly interesting writing, The End of Night defies categorization — it’s part environmental history, part social history, part literary history, and part travelogue. To gather his research, Bogard visited over twenty places, not only charting the influence of artificial light in the Western world over the past few centuries but discovering in our own time the places with the brightest nights (Las Vegas, perhaps unsurprisingly) and those with the darkest (nearby Death Valley).

“We have consistently exported artificial light to the rest of the earth,” Bogard says, “colonising the night everywhere we go, imposing our brand of nocturnal imperialism on others.”

Bogard’s extended journey has led him to speak with scientists, physicians, activists, and writers. With them, his goal is to raise awareness of the value of darkness and the threats from light pollution. But while The End of Night addresses these urgent issues, it also transcends them. Throughout, Bogard’s passion for poetry and literature shine through, as does his appreciation for “the necessity of the unknown”, the wonder that real nights give us, and the mystery of darkness.

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In search of trees in literature

Posted in Musings..., Rediscovered by Adair Jones on May 12, 2009

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In the earliest known work of literary fiction, The Epic of Gilgamesh (2700 BC), jeweled trees figure.  The hero’s journey begins at a grove of cedars, which are guarded by the monster Humbaba, and ends at the otherworldly trees that bear rare jewels for fruit.  These marvellous trees exist in a garden at the end of the tunnel from the sun, which  Gilgamesh enters alone.  The two types of trees—cedar and jeweled—represent the boundaries of the physical world.

Daphne

Who can forget one’s first experience with Ovid?  Whether it was in the unit on Greek and Roman mythology in Year 5 or the magical Humphries translation of Metamorphoses widely assigned in universities.  All those fantastic stories about women (and sometimes men) in flight, calling for help and getting it by way of transformation.  Remember Daphne, a young woman with a beautiful face who prefers woodland sports over sporting with men, and Apollo, who is seized with love for her?  Quite naturally, a chase ensues.  And just as Apollo is about to catch her, she calls out:  “Help me, open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger!”   With that plea, her skin becomes bark, her hair turns into leaves, her arms are transformed into branches, and her feet grow into the ground.  Apollo embraces the branches, but even they shrink from him.  Grieving, Apollo calls on his powers of eternal youth to ensure Daphne will never die.  This dramatic story is offered as a poetic explanation for why the leaves of the Bay Laurel tree are ever green.

gustav-klimt-the-tree-of-life-stoclet-frieze-c-1909-detail

In Paradise Lost, Milton describes the ‘Tree of Life’ in this lush way: “High eminent, blooming Ambrosial Fruit Of vegetable Gold… Flours of all hue…the mantling vine Layes forth her purple Grape, and gently creeps Luxuriant”.  Later, he chides Satan for turning himself into a cormorant and using the highest branch of the ‘tree of life’ as a perch from which he might devise the death of others, ignoring the gifts and riches of eternal life.

dule tree

Sir Walter Scott’s novel Guy Mannering (1815) features a ‘Dule’ tree, which was also known as the ‘justice’ tree, the ‘gallows’ tree, and the tree of ‘lamentation and grief’.  Highland Chieftains regularly hanged enemies, traitors and common criminals from Dule trees.   Such trees were located on high ground at busy thoroughfares, where the rotting bodies hung for a considerable time as a warning to all who passed by.

Hive at Brook Farm

Coverdale, the narrator of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s exquisite novel The Blithedale Romance (1852), climbs halfway up a white pine in which a wild grapevine had “twined and twisted itself up into the tree, and after wreathing the entanglement of its tendrils around almost every bough, had caught hold of three or four neighboring trees, and married the whole clump with a perfectly inextricable knot of polygamy.”  From this airy chamber, Coverdale composes verse, shirks work, and spies on other members of the commune.  (Blithedale is based on Brook Farm, a 19th century utopian experiment in communal living inspired by American transcendentalist writings.  Interestingly, major figures like Emerson, Thoreau and Poe questioned the community’s idealism and values.  The experiment failed within seven years.)

ta-prohm-banyan

In the shade of the house, in the sunshine of the riverbank near the boats, in the shade of the Sal-wood forest, in the shade of the fig tree is where Siddhartha grew up, the handsome son of the Brahman, the young falcon, together with his friend Govinda, son of a Brahman. The sun tanned his light shoulders by the banks of the river when bathing, performing the sacred ablutions, the sacred offerings. In the mango grove, shade poured into his black eyes, when playing as a boy, when his mother sang, when the sacred offerings were made, when his father, the scholar, taught him, when the wise men talked. Thus begins Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, An Indian Tale (1922).

enid blyton the faraway tree

The four books of The Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton (published between 1939 and 1951) are beloved children’s stories that feature one of the wildest fictional trees of all time.  It’s inhabited by a crazy assortment of magical creatures, all with unusual visages, habits and predilections.  But the most interesting thing about the tree is that at the top there is a ladder that leads to a magical land.   Each time the children visit, the land is different: sometimes awful, like the Land of Dame Slap, ruled by a cruel schoolteacher; sometimes enjoyable, like the Land of Take-What-You-Want.

baron in the trees

In 1767, the twelve year old Baron Cosimo Piavosco di Rondo refuses to eat his dinner of snails and in a tantrum takes to the trees, where he lives out the rest of his life.  He doesn’t live in only one tree, but in a Europe more heavily forested than today, he travels long distances from tree to tree never placing his feet on the ground.  A whimsical novel steeped in history and philosophy, Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees was first published in 1957.

apple-full

In The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World (2002), Michael Pollan looks at the social history of the apple tree and reveals the truth behind the Johnny Appleseed legend—it was all to do with moonshine.

eucalyptus

One of my favourite recent novels is Eucalyptus (1998) by Murray Bail, which won both the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1999. Set up like a fairy tale, Ellen Holland’s unusual beauty causes her father much concern until he devises a contest: the man who can name all the eucalyptus species on his rambling property will win her hand in marriage.  Many try, a few come close, and just as it looks as though one will succeed,  Ellen’s true love arrives with the crush of eucalyptus leaves under his boots and an inarguable solution.