It was the kind of evening that Slapton excels at. We started outside a lesser horseshoe roost at dusk, listening with delight to the pitch-shifted Doppler calls of the departing bats – an intensely alien sound like tiny accelerating spaceships. Later, in the full dark, we shone our torches into the freshwater lagoon. Worlds upon worlds of life were revealed, from pulsing zooplankton to spiders walking on water. Daubenton’s bats skimmed the lake surface to pick off caddisflies amid clouds of tiny mayflies.
When we dimmed our torchlights and looked up, seemingly countless* more worlds sparkled across unimaginable trillions of miles. Our final departure towards the field centre and deep sleep was accompanied by moonrise over the sea. The pale yellow harvest moon and sweep of the Start Point Lighthouse, both reflected in the sea; the stars; glow-worms in the road verge: a storybook lightscape that can hardly be real.
Given the right conditions, this evening excursion is always a highlight of our Devon field course. The dark heightens our senses; the very fact that more of the world is hidden seems to make that which we can see all the more revelatory. It helps that the skies in South Devon are dark. Perhaps not Galloway dark (the first Dark Sky Park in the UK; alas, during our visit last year we had precious little stargazing weather) but still a world and what feels like decades or centuries away from anywhere in southeast England, where the obscuring haze of London and outlying towns is near inescapable. Even in Slapton village itself there’s little light pollution, nestled as it is between the rural South Hams and the open sea beyond. A full, dizzying canopy of stars hangs over the streetlight-free lanes on a clear night, with an occasional abrupt security light the only interruption. The Milky Way is clearly evident as a broad linear cloud, a dispersed contrail left by the jet power of our galaxy’s formation. Longer study is rewarded by shooting stars; one flared brightly long enough for me to say ‘Oh…oh, look!’, before its moment was gone.
On return from the pub one night, I went back outside with my compact birdwatching telescope. It wasn’t designed for astronomy, but any device that makes things bigger will help. A decent pair of binoculars is enough to just about completely blow the mind by the numbers of additional stars they will bring into focus. My 12–36x scope brings Jupiter’s moons into range. This time Jupiter had sunk a little too low into the haze of Earth’s atmosphere on the horizon, but Saturn was still high enough to be able to see the flatness of its shape, an impression of rings just on the edge of vision. There’s such magic in recognising this most familiar textbook planet outline in direct line of sight, as though there is nothing at all between you and this smudge of light a billion miles away.
Back home in Newbury, although we live on the edge of town the stars show more dimly against an ever-present orange glare. My scope will still provide wonderful views of our moon, or Jupiter’s moons when high enough in the sky, but the ‘real’ night sky is a distant memory – something quite literally out of another time. It is never truly dark here. The clearest constellations to be seen are those at ground level, comprised of the scatter of garden lights that has been spreading through our neighbours’ gardens almost as though they are the fruiting bodies of a bioluminescent fungus. One of the houses now has fairy lights permanently lit along at least a third of the 80-metre garden: several designs, some multicoloured, some flashing. Look out from our upstairs windows at night and you see Christmas all year round. Yet I rarely see anybody out there making use of the light show.
When I go outside at night I prefer to walk into proper darkness. I understand why public thoroughfares are increasingly well lit by stark white LEDs – encouraging safe use of zero-carbon, people-powered transport must be a good thing. But perhaps we lose a little of something precious with every pocket of true night that is swallowed up by human industry. For example, I must admit to distinctly mixed feelings about the gradual creep of very bright lighting on Whiteknights Lake, where during my first year at Reading University a group of us Wessex Hall residents used to enjoy regular night walks. These wouldn’t be quite such an adventure now.
Are we afraid of the dark? Well, yes. Our pulses race faster; slight noises put us on edge more than they would during the day. Being out in the dark we feel more truly alive and in nature; perhaps for some people this is a sensation more akin to threat. But this can’t explain everything: the march of garden lights and the desire to eradicate every trace of the dark whether or not we’re safely indoors. We know an increasing amount about the effects of light pollution on wildlife. I wonder whether we know anything at all about what it does to ourselves.
*Accounting for variation in location and eyesight, there are actually only somewhere between 2500 and 10,000 stars visible to the naked eye from any particular location.