Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Peter Lipscomb is an award-winning Santa Fe-based astrophotographer. New Mexico State Parks ranger by day and stargazer by night, he specializes in outdoor education. Active in conservation efforts to preserve a naturally dark night sky, he compiled the nomination packet to have Clayton Lake State Park designated the first International Dark Sky Park in New Mexico and has supported local efforts statewide to establish and strengthen protections against light pollution.
I met Lipscomb on a train in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was passing around a 4.5 billion-year-old meteor (yes, billion with a b), preparing a car full of increasingly tipsy tourists to be awed by something they see every day — the night sky.
He began his astronomy lecture that evening by sharing a poem by Wendell Berry.
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
A few weeks later, I called him to talk about the importance of knowing, and preserving, the dark. Enjoy our conversation, below.
Note: The opinions Peter Lipscomb expresses here are his own, and not representative of the New Mexico Parks Service. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anya Petrone Slepyan, The Daily Yonder: Something you said on the train that really stuck with me was the idea of the night sky as the world’s oldest natural resource. Can you explain what you meant by that?
Peter Lipscomb: Sure. So the night sky is both a global ecosystem and something that has informed and inspired our kind for all the thousands of years of human history. We can see this in how we used it as a resource to create a calendar, set important dates for ritual practice and ceremony, manage our planting and farming, and find our way around across uncharted land and water using celestial navigation. And then there’s the aesthetic part of the cultural history, which you can see in the visual arts. You can hear it in music, you find it in the alignment of ancient temples and buildings. It’s even in nursery rhymes, so it’s everywhere. And the other way I like to think of it is as the most ancient of all natural beauties. Think about the time of the dinosaurs, and then billions of years earlier when all the continents were just a giant supercontinent before they had drifted apart, even all that time ago. All that stuff in the sky was already out there. It was billions of billions of years ago, the most ancient of all natural beauties.
DY: So for all of human history, the night sky has had spiritual and cultural significance. But it has also been mundane in the sense that it is something people experienced all the time. How has that changed?
PL: The fundamental issue is that we are losing the night. What was common to the human experience across the globe less than 150 years ago has now become the domain of a few. And that’s why when I was on the train with you, I shared Wendell Berry’s poem, “To Know the Dark,” because I think it has an important message about this other half of our daily cycle, alternating cycles of daytime and nighttime. And a lot of people don’t take a moment to really connect to that these days. They’re losing an opportunity to connect to a part of our natural world that defines what it means to be a creature on this planet. The fact that throughout our entire evolution as a species, we were influenced by those alternating cycles of daytime and night, as were most of the living creatures on this planet. So we are losing, in a way, a touchstone, an essential part of what it is to be human.
DY: The night sky is very important to you personally — when did you first feel that connection?
PL: So my personal relationship with the night sky began as a young one, as a child growing up in Virginia and being in parts of Virginia that were rural and places that had a dark enough sky. I was just enthralled by what I could see after the sun went down, the twinkling stars and the moon. Things that are available to everybody if they get out to a place that’s naturally dark. So that became a source of fascination and wonder for me. But it all shifted in a really big way when I experienced the total eclipse of the sun on March 7th, 1970, when I was eight years old. And that experience was profound at every sensory level.
I was at the beach. So I felt the breeze freshening and I smelled the ocean, felt the cooling of the air against my skin as the breeze started blowing. I heard the birds quieting as if it was twilight and they were going to roost. And seeing that there are big things happening out there, with the moon moving in front of the sun, I wanted to know more about what those big things were. So at that moment, I began a deeper journey in astronomy, in terms of wanting to learn more about the different phenomena out there and getting a sense of how we fit into the grand cosmos.
DY: You are an advocate for what is known as the ‘dark sky’ movement, which is a campaign to reduce light pollution. Why is that movement important, and what are some basic things people can do to help?
PL: Well, unlike a lot of other issues that are big, huge, hairy things that require super funds and acts of Congress, things like preserving darkness, reclaiming the night is something that we can all do right now today. All it takes is just being sensible as far as how we use our outdoor lighting. And this is important for all sorts of reasons, well beyond stargazing. Not having access to natural levels of darkness is harmful for us, in terms of our own human health and proper resting and restorative sleep cycles. Excessive lighting also harms ecosystems and the natural environment, and disrupts migratory, feeding and reproductive behaviors for wildlife.
We all can make choices that are going to provide responsible, sensible and safe levels of lighting because no one’s going to say, “Turn out all the lights.” Any sensible lighting advocate would never say that. What we’re saying is, “Use the light in a way that is safe and effective.”
DY: Many rural communities have been dark-sky leaders. Why is this important?
PL: There’s an opportunity for these communities who have little in the way of population to preserve their sense of place. They can protect the things that they value about where they live and maybe why they even moved there to begin with. We each have an individual cultural identity, and that’s important in terms of the holidays we observe or the kinds of food we eat or the traditions we share, but the night sky is a collective and shared cultural heritage. It’s something that belongs to all of us. And rural communities can help protect this resource.
Peter Lipscomb’s Tips for Mitigating Light Pollution
First you ask yourself, ‘does it need to be lit?’ Maybe somebody has a driveway and they want to put those pilasters out front with coach lanterns on them. Is that really necessary, or would some cat eye reflectors on stalks at the front of their driveway be enough to let them navigate in the dark?
Light things only to the level they need to be lit. Sometimes a better way to light something is to use contrast. For example, instead of putting up a big light that lights a stairway, you might put little cove lights along where the steps are. That would just show the contrast between the risers and the tread so that people can actually work their way up the stairway very easily, because of the contrast, as opposed to over-lighting.
Keep the light facing downwards. Make sure that when things are lit that there’s no light being emitted above a horizontal plane. Shield the light so that you can see the effect of the light and not the source to prevent glare.
Avoid light trespassing by setting and shielding the light properly so that it is contained within the property of its origin. Everyone has the right to light their property how they want to, but my light shouldn’t spill onto your property.
Avoid blue-spectrum LED lights. Though LED lights are critical tools to reduce energy usage, blue-hued light spreads more and increases light pollution. Instead, amber-toned LED lights are energy efficient and prevent unnecessary spread.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.