Try not to look at the geeky high school boy and his cute girlfriend, but note the east-facing window by my bed, the adjustable lamp on the wall, and the string of Christmas lights above. She’s still cute, by the way, and I’m still geeky. But neither of us wear silk shirts or use nautical wallpaper.
I was just as afraid of the dark as any other kid, but no origin story about a lighting evangelist like me can be complete without a long trip into literal darkness. If there was no night, day would lose a great deal of its meaning. And growing up on the farm helped me experience night more fully than I do living in town. Whoever heard of a hayrack ride down main street?
When the sun went down on the farm, the darkness was just as enveloping as the day’s light. Stars blanketed the black night sky too numerous to count, and the hazy glow of our own Milky Way galaxy was a nightly visitor. Airplanes occasionally traveled across my sky, but I never once saw the streaking path of a satellite.
Central Illinois is not like the middle of Montana or Kansas, where it seems difficult to see the next farmhouse. The intense effort required of farming in Illinois meant many more farms, and I was surrounded by neighbors and small towns. My best friend lived in the country a mere mile away, and I went to schools in small towns just three and five miles distant. Night in Illinois was not like rural New Mexico, where the only artificial light is what you bring. Instead, the horizon all around me was dotted with a continuous line of tiny glowing lights, like a ring of very old Christmas lights. Dim porch lights, extra bright barn lights, some amber, some the sickly green of mercury vapor, some clustered closely and some spaced widely, these lights were like a diamond necklace around our farm. When I went to the edge of our property, I could gaze at the stars in wonder or fix my eyes on the dozens of tiny lights in the miles around me. I was never truly in the dark.
We had one of those mercury vapor utility barn lights on a tall wooden post near the big metal building we called the machine shed. Placed next to our gas tanks, the greenish glow illuminated the dented white metal walk-in door of the shed and bounced off the dirty white limestone gravel drive. Like all of its cousins, the light hummed and buzzed like my dad’s old electric razor and was often orbited by countless insects held by the gravity of its glow. The machine shed is sixty yards or so from the farm house, whose porch lanterns faded out at the end of the brick walk next to the garage. In between was a bit of darkness, and I used to run through that spot to get from one light to another.
Near the northern horizon was the glow of the big town fifteen miles away, a small city of one hundred thousand. On clear nights, I could not see much of the town except the slow mechanical rotating green and white beacon atop the control tower of the small airport. When clouds hung low, the orange glow of sodium streetlights and parking lot lights bounced into the clouds and back to me. It looks just like you might imagine the glow of a forest fire over the next hill, or like the horizon just before a harvest moon rises. I could see at least five smaller towns from the farm, but none of them cast the same kind of glow. Later, when I went to college in the big town, I would discover that the stars disappeared in the glow. Later still, I would learn that the glow was called “light pollution,” but as a child the big town was full of allure and magic (like toy stores!).
If I just painted a visual image of your mind of overwhelming artificial light, then please erase a big part of the sky and color it black. Above my farm the sky was deep black and salted with thousands of bright stars. As a teenager I could lie on the pool deck and clearly see the Milky Way. At night I could pick out constellations and play hide and seek by the light of the moon. As sadness became a more frequent visitor I would walk to the edge of the farm where apple trees blocked the barn light and glow of the big town. Standing at the point where the grass turned to field, I would gaze out at the distant lights of farms and into the star-filled sky above. It was best after between harvest and planting, when the fields were bare and the view was unobstructed for tens of miles. I was looking for something, alternating my attention from artificial to natural.
The farms in my part of Illinois were electrified in the 1930’s and 1940’s as a result of the Rural Electrification Administration’s New Deal efforts. Co-ops were created (many of which still exist today) by farmers eager to bring the miracle of power to their workplaces and homes. My father, born in 1941, remembers walking to the cattle barn in the pre-dawn darkness carrying an oil lantern. Cattle barns are full of flammable material, like bales of hay, and flame has a long history of causing problems. Electricity, when it came, powered labor-saving motors and life-saving light that made the barns safer. That same cattle barn, which has not seen livestock in a quarter century, is still standing.
It wasn’t long before electricity was in the home, and light was the most mentioned benefit in newspaper articles from the era. You could have a light in every room! The lamp on my sister’s desk was not a replica oil lamp, but a real oil lamp that had been converted to electricity in the 40’s. Why waste a perfectly good lamp just because the energy source changed? Electric appliances quickly followed, amazing farmers with refrigerators that kept food fresh and washing machines that did their own scrubbing. For my great grandmother, laundry was a two-day chore: one day for carrying water up from the stream, one for laundering the clothes. When electric pumps came to the farm, everything changed.
By the time my family moved into the house in 1973, a year before my birth, electricity was so popular it even provided the heat through radiant ceilings. There was no natural gas in the house, and gone were the days when a single light in every room was the norm. You know by now that my mother loved windows; after dark she transferred that affection to lamps and I subconsciously learned the value of multiple layers of light. The hidden electric heating wires above made it difficult to add lighting to the ceiling, so she added table lamps and floor lamps to banish shadows. We had lamps on bedside tables, lamps on desks, lamps atop dressers, lamps on tables in the halls, and lamps for reading near every comfortable seat in the house. Some were adjustable, swinging out towards us for optimal light distribution. The lamp in the hallway outside my bedroom stayed on all night, reassuring me as a little child. When I grew older, I would often crack my door open and lay on the floor just inside secretly reading the latest Hardy Boys masterpiece in the narrow slice of dim amber light. Now that I have my own children, I suspect I was not so secretive as I thought and that my parents let me read myself to sleep. Sometimes I would even drag blankets and pillows to that sliver of light and spend the night on the floor. Thank goodness wall-to-wall carpeting was en vogue.
It was after college when I began to truly understand that not everyone lived this way, and that many survived with ceiling fan lights as the only source of illumination in their living room or bedroom. Today I call this the ceiling fan light syndrome, or CFLS, and prescribe lamps as an easy treatment to cure the problem of tremendous glare that diminishes our comfort.
Despite copious lamps throughout our home, candles and fires were also a memorable part of my growing up. Power outages in the country were common then, and I remember the entire house lit with candles that were kept handy for just such occasions. More frequent during the winters were fires in the large brick fireplace in our living room. On a cold winter’s Sunday evening, when dad was responsible for dinner, we would gather around the hearth and listen to books read aloud while eating popcorn, cheese, and apples. From tales of Narnia to the moral-teaching illustrated Value Tales, I listened to stories as the crackling and popping fire warmed the room and filled it with dancing flames of orange and gold. The walls of the living room are covered with reclaimed barn siding, and their dark faded red paint kept the room in shadow.
When I was old enough to help with the fire, I jumped right in. We crumpled newspapers up to start the fire, and I would carefully push them in one-by-one until the logs caught. When we stopped reading aloud as a family, we turned into our own books but stayed near the flames. The hearth was raised from the floor to the perfect seat height and we would rotate to the coveted spot to super-heat our backs and souls. Eventually, the lull of the fire would draw us close to sleep, and we would sink deeper into the couches before dad would carry us off to bed. Heat and light warmed us to the core and kept us comfortable and happy as we drifted off to sleep under the covers.
When I was about eight years old, I began camping with my dad and our church’s Boy-Scout-like troop of Royal Rangers. I loved every minute of the trips, from riding in the rickety bus with my friends to setting up the giant canvas cabin tents, to running and jumping and climbing in organized games in the meadows and woods, to campfires at night. Evening campfires were the culmination of the day, with guest speakers, skits, entertainment, and usually an altar call as well. For those of you not raised in the evangelical world, an altar call is when the speaker invites you to give your life to Jesus. I was too shy to go down front with the masses, and would stay rooted in my seat wondering if I was making a mistake. A little shame would start to creep in, but before too long we were hiking back through the woods, a hundred flashlights weaving back and forth as we headed to our tents.
Experiences of my childhood left indelible marks, and lamps and candles and fires are carved deep into my soul. My home is filled with lamps; my small living room has seven. I was thrilled when our current home came with a wood-burning fireplace, and a favorite evening activity is to build a fire and relax with a good book and my family nearby. We camp as a family, and many evenings end around a campfire. After roasting marshmallows, the boys switch on booklights so they can read while my wife and I gaze into the flames and talk. To me, there is no better end to a day.