Mike Powell’s column is about living in Arizona.
Anyone who’s been here will tell you all about the light: its force, its starkness, how shadows seem to cut everything in two.
I gather it’s a cowboy thing, the way hard light fosters fantasies of the desert as a place where all existence struggles against an unforgiving sun. Light here doesn’t just light, it judges. A pamphlet from the EPA says roughly 171 Arizonans die of melanoma each year. Only about twice as many go by homicide.
But the real remarkable thing about this place isn’t the light, it’s the darkness. In some neighborhoods, you can walk three blocks between streetlights, losing sight of even your hands. Those short on material could build some rudimentary stand-up: I heard Tucson is so dark that …
This is, they will tell you, for the benefit of astronomy, something Arizona excels in, but also for us other people, who buy into the idea of being that much closer to the stars in a romantic, chamber-of-commerce way.
We even have a group anchored here called the International Dark-Sky Association, whose mission their program director, John Barentine, summarizes as such: “not just less light, but better.” Most places, he says, just don’t give it much thought: it’s on or it’s off, the line item in a city budget subordinated to bigger concerns. Long before the IDA coalesced, Tucson started shielding outdoor bulbs from unnecessary seepage into the sky, an ordinance passed the same year the city banned smoking in movie theaters: 1972.
Now the questions are about things like LEDs—what type and at what setting—things Barentine says most city managers don’t understand and shouldn’t be expected to without consultation. For the sole and simple reason that our eyes don’t perceive light in the same way we use to measure it, for example, an IDA-recommended LED looks the same to the naked eye as an old orange sodium light, with about a quarter of the impact to the sky. Later, I walked around my neighborhood, over to Main where the lights haven’t been updated, then over to Stone, where they have. I saw nothing. That was the point.
Not all technology is progress. Blue-rich LEDs—a quiet nemesis of the IDA—are cheap to operate but scatter back into the sky for the same reasons the sky appears to be blue, producing what people colloquially call light pollution but what scientists have given the unfortunately beautiful name sky glow. They installed them in Brooklyn, Barentine says, and cranked them up. People said it looked like the mothership had landed.
Nature doesn’t know what to make of it. Night-hunting birds crash into towers, while turtle hatchlings in coastal Florida, who, accustomed to wandering toward a moonlit ocean, instead wander toward cities and into traffic. Insects swarm uncommonly around blue light, making it a boon for spiders.
What we know seems bad. What we don’t yet seems worse. In 2016, the American Medical Association ventured that prolonged exposure to artificial blue-rich light might contribute to everything from the disruption of circadian rhythms to breast cancer. I still take my computer to bed, and how it shines. The difference is that I now imagine telling my grandchildren that none of us ever thought it would really be a problem, like a cigarette to help that baby come.
Despite contravening numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, light remains a symbol of progress and safety—literally the first invention of the Christian God. During the last recession, several American cities got darker, cutting power at night in order to save money. Opportunists in Detroit stripped streetlights for copper wire. One of the hardest parts of Barentine’s job is advocating for darkness in parts of the world—around Asia and Africa, mostly—where light signals what refrigeration might have been in America a hundred years ago.
“Brighter cities mean you’ve made it,” he explains. “You can afford to waste something. That’s why, sometimes in our movement, what we’re trying to accomplish has been identified as a concern of rich white people in the West. That only people who can afford to waste a resource can become concerned about the fact that it’s being wasted, and then can demand its preservation.”
In America, we scoff for other reasons. Barentine remembers a presentation he gave to a rural community in eastern Arizona. On finishing up his talk, the town’s mayor shot up, insisting that no star lover from Pima County was going to tell her or anyone else in this town what they could do on their private property. Barentine asked her what she’d do if her neighbors were playing their stereo too loud. Call the police, she said. Right, Barentine said. Now imagine the music was light.
Mike Weasner, amateur astronomer and chair of the Oracle Dark Skies Committee in Oracle, Arizona, has a story he likes to tell about a man he met in front of Rockefeller Center. Weasner was in New York for a wedding, wearing a large circular lapel pin that read LIGHT POLLUTION, with a strikethrough.
“What,” the man said. “You want heavy pollution?”
Weasner engaged him briefly. The man was from New York and had lived there his whole life. He figured stars were from somewhere else.
Darkness is illiteracy and regression, the medium of sin. Bogeymen live in darkness and more importantly, so does the Arizona bark scorpion, which, according to a part-time daredevil and iron sculptor we bought a couch from through Craigslist, sting like a yellow jacket the size of a Chihuahua.
Nothing, of course, makes darkness quite like light. That floodlight over a parking lot, for example, splashing around indiscriminately. Your pupils constrict. Suddenly, that space on the other side of that car is darker than it’s ever been.
But darkness is also silence and intimacy, a cozy booth without advertising. A week ago, I found myself standing at the end of a long driveway in Oracle State Park, one of about forty certified International Dark-Sky Parks in the world. Above me, the Milky Way, surrounded by thousands of other things I don’t know the name for. According to a 2016 paper called “The New World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness,” only 20 percent of Americans can see what I saw. The fainter the light, the longer it had to travel, the easier it is to wash out. It was the past.
The website for Tucson Electric Power tells me the city’s earliest contracts, around 1900, stipulated all artificial light be shut off during full moons. Though I like imagining our conversation, I know better than to call the power company about anything so beautiful.
Instead, there are, courtesy the Arizona Historical Society, boxes of old newspaper clippings, none of which reference the moon as such but dozens—hundreds, even—that refer to electricity as “juice,” and at least two reporting power outages caused by bullets from carelessly fired guns.
One of these bullets downed a wire that whipped across the ground like a serpent, electrocuting a horse. The other, attributed to a reveler celebrating the New Year, plunged the whole city center into darkness. Phone calls flooded the police station but the officers could only apologize, noting that darkness was a phenomenon that lay “outside the sphere of influence of the law.”
Mike Powell has written for Grantland, Pitchfork, the Ringer, Rolling Stone, and other places in print and online. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.