Sunday 7 June 2015

When Long Shadows Fall

Darkness is coming early. Tonight kunanyi/Mt Wellington is hunched, her outline as crisp as d├ęcoupage. The air fizzes with the chill and stars wink confidently, as though they know there will be frost in the morning.

And why not? It is winter here at 43 degrees south. It’s the dark season, the season that shrinks the lives of many, and for some brings on seasonal affective disorder or S.A.D. (surely a deliberate acronym!)

[Winter shadows, Mt Field National Park] 
Most of us feel some of that shrinkage. Not for nothing did our ancestors fear winter. It was the season that took out the weak, the sick, the old. While those effects are not completely conquered these days, most of us can be warm and well through most winters.

So what is it we feel or fear? I think it’s deeper than any race memory of killing winters. Might we have an issue with darkness itself; with long shadows; with extended nights?

[Winter night sky, South Hobart] 
In his 1928 nature classic “The Outermost House”, Henry Beston wrote

Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than night. 

Beston feared that we may be losing something by covering the dark with artificial light. When he wrote that, light globes had only been around for 50 years. How much further have we gone since 1928? What would he think of today’s satellite images of the earth at night, with its bright patches spreading towards every unlit corner?

[Map/image showing light pollution from space
(courtesy Canadian Environmental Health Atlas) .. 
click to enlarge] 
I suspect Beston would not be surprised by where we have gone. It seems that because we can cover the dark with our own light, we do so. Likewise we avoid silence with our own noise; and stillness with our constant activity. But are we any the better for this “falling out of touch” with nature?

Neither we nor Beston should be surprised to learn that we are suffering some consequences. Recent scientific studies on the effect of artificial light – what some call light pollution – have shown a range of human health problems. These include sleep disruption and increased levels of cancer in human populations. And in the wider environment, studies implicate light pollution in major disruptions of animal behaviour and migration patterns.

[The light returning: sunrise at home] 
It turns out we actually need the darkness, and the physiological effects it has, including the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in response to dropping light levels. It helps regulate a range of our body’s processes, with sleep levels just one of these. Studies of melatonin-deficient subjects show an increased likelihood of a range of health problems.

That really shows darkness in a different light, so to speak. Perhaps it’s time to give darkness its place; to see its nightly appearance as essential to our daily refreshing. And to see its seasonal dominance as vital to the replenishment of all life on earth.

At the personal level I think I’ll try to embrace winter afresh. I might even hope for snow (yes, we’ve had some of that already: sufficient for me, in a fit of frosty optimism, to buy myself some snow shoes). Come on winter: do your best!

[Fresh snow on kunanyi/Mt Wellington] 

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