Finding the Gift #2: Light (and Darkness) as a Birthright

My Finding the Gift series is an exploration of my journey towards the literal and figurative light with reflections on both personal and professional experiences.

My relationship with light goes back to the very beginning, though at the time I simply existed unaware of the fortune and favor that surrounded me. Now in midlife, I look back at my childhood with a fresh set of (aging) eyes and see a layer of benefits I took for granted, light included.

I do not recall how old I was when my oldest sibling stopped being a resident and started being a guest in our house, which freed up a room for me to call my own. I was in grade school at the time, I do remember that much, and I remember the room quite well as I was to remain there until I graduated from high school and went off to college. It was not a particularly large room but had plenty of space for my books, LEGO’s, and eventual stereo and desk. And it had a window, just one, looking due east. I suspect there are millions who could describe a similar childhood experience.

But I was unknowingly blessed from the beginning with extraordinary access to natural light. The house itself was on our family farm in rural Illinois, surrounded by a few acres of yard and farm buildings, all of which was set in hundreds of acres of farmland. “Neighbor” meant something a little different than in town and included a radius of several miles but still only a dozen or so homes. The nearest small town was three miles off to the northeast, close enough for bike rides to the ice cream stand while far enough to be considered “away.”

The benefits of this arrangement were evident every morning out my window in clear view to the horizon. I woke many mornings to the rising sun, a bright orange orb peeking from under the horizon. Above the horizon, my view was filled with sky and gave me a front-row seat to weather of every kind. I could see rain showers miles away, thunderheads a hundred miles distant but crystal clear in the blue sky, and the puffy white clouds of a summer day.

In other words, I had incredible access to natural light from the moment I woke each day. Compared to the east-facing window in my current bedroom, the view was spectacular, the kind of scenery that we photograph when we are lucky enough to wake to the sunrise on a beach vacation. Now, if I look east, I see the light gray siding of my neighbor’s house, close enough across the narrow drive that I feel I could hand them a stick of butter without leaving the house. I love being in town- there are many benefits to it- but seeing the sunrise regularly is not one of them.

My access to natural light did not decrease throughout the day as a youth, but rather increased as I spent time playing or working on the farm (much more playing, I confess, than working). Summertime, with fifteen hours of daylight, were full of adventures, at least when I was not sitting on a lawn mower (it took several hours to mow the farmstead, even with a 72” cutting deck and a serious tractor). Even then, though, I was soaking up daylight.

When close to the house, I might have 140° of sky in my view. If I went out to the edges of the yard, it felt like I could take in the entire sky. Montana may be big sky country, but without mountains in Illinois I could accurately call my boyhood home bigger sky country. 

This is not the same in town. I rarely see the sun rise unless I am out for an early morning jog, and see the sunset on occasion when we head to a park on one of the lakes to catch it on purpose. My view of the sky itself is much reduced, with no visible horizon and homes and trees narrowing my view in front and behind my home. Downtown, like any city with larger buildings, the view of the sky is even less. I think of Chicago, for example, as being defined by the lake, but this might also be as easily defined by the sky above the lake, which occupies more of the view and stems from the lake keeping away tall buildings and trees. I think people go to the lakefront to see the sky as much as they go to see the lake, but without ever knowing their attraction to the light.

I realize now that I was extraordinarily lucky to grow up with access to daily sunrises and sunsets and a wide, broad sky above. The more I read about our dependence on natural light signals for our wellness, the more I appreciate what I had on the farm. And just because the sun went down does not mean the benefits of growing up in the country ended. 

(and Darkness)

I recently pondered the value of darkness- and our relationship with it- in a couple of blog posts in my Light Can Help Us series. In the first I explored why darkness- true, deep darkness- is necessary for our wellbeing. In the second, I wrestled with what light we could use, given that complete darkness no longer suits our modern lifestyle. It turns out that the good fortune of sunshine growing up was mirrored by an equally good fortune of darkness.

The same sky that fed my eyes the right wavelengths in the right quantities, from sunrise to sunset, became a deep, dark night sky. On clear nights, I could see many stars and easily make out the edges of our own Milky Way galaxy. There was some light on the farm, including the ubiquitous “utility light” on the side of the machine shed that cast glare in every direction. But I could easily walk behind the house or to a corner of the farmyard with trees at my back and be surrounded by stars.

I do not enjoy this same view in town. While my current home sits between two lakes that provide some relief from light pollution, I am near the heart of the city and surrounded by other homes and nearby businesses. The night sky is not deep and dark, though I can often see a few dozen stars. This itself is rare; those of us that live in larger cities may only see a dozen or so, all the rest chased away by wasted light from our porches and parking lots.

I miss the quiet darkness of the countryside and revel in darkness whenever we go camping. I value darkness so much that I quit using the horrible glare bombs supplied with the camper and installed a low shielded step light near the ground, but even that is often too bright for my liking.

Those living in densely populated urban areas may never experience a night sky like the one I enjoyed and took for granted growing up on the farm, and this is a problem for all of us. When we do not know something exists, we cannot love it and we are less likely to work to preserve it. If we do not know that the Milky Way should be visible to our naked eyes, that stars should number in the thousands, why would we shield our porch lights, stop uplighting our trees, and advocate for ordinances that require parking lots to go dark after hours?

Each generation remembers only their own experience. As time passes, most of us living today have not seen a good night sky. We may think we have, but even growing up on the farm I was several steps removed from the night sky enjoyed by my family when they settled the farm in the 1880’s. This theory can be applied to nearly any environmental degradation; I have never known the lakes in Madison to be clear and clean, so imagining them as anything but algae-filled and mud-bottomed is difficult. We need to listen to those who study the past and take steps to restore our darkness.

I feel fortunate to have grown up in a rural environment with access to natural light and deeper darkness than I have lived with for the last thirty years. Perhaps this foundation made me more sensitive to light, more appreciative of the vast array of colors in the daytime, more easily delighted by the sparkle of night stars. Perhaps I have spent the last few decades subconsciously trying to recreate the experiences of my youth through lighting design, always falling short of what nature provides. 

I would love to change the world so that others could enjoy what I had and lost.

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