by Mark Ellison

Dark Night Skies

Article originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of A.T. Journeys Magazine.

The white blazes marking the Appalachian Trail serve much the same navigational purpose as stars have to explorers for thousands of years. During the day, the blazes encourage us on, but as the sun sets, the green tunnel of the Appalachian Trail turns black, offering above it some of the darkest skies remaining in the eastern United States. Instead of watching wildflowers bloom, at night we gaze up into a vast maze of stars and planets we may have never known existed in an urban environment.

Darkness has always cradled mystery and the unknown. It magnifies sounds and intensifies imagination primarily because it limits what we can see. Darkness, like quiet and solitude, is a gift if we are open to embracing it. Just as we are in awe of vibrant sunsets, bucolic mountain vistas, and cascading waterfalls, the impenetrable depth of a dark sky nurtures a sense of peace and wonder.

Unfortunately, human-created light is invading more and more of the view shed corridors of the A.T., reducing the darkness of the night sky. The eastern U.S. has the worst light pollution in North America with visibility of only a few stars in places like Atlanta and Washington, D.C. The A.T. serves as a cocoon from the unrelenting glare of modern life that disrupts sleep, causes stress and hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Dark night skies are woven into our health as well as the ecosystems of the forest.

Night darkness serves as an incubator supporting the rhythms of nature.
Milky Way above the A.T. Roan Highlands from Jane Bald, Tennessee / North Carolina – By Malcom MacGregor

Natural darkness provides a refuge not only for weary humans, but also for wildlife. Light pollution impacts migratory routes, animal foraging areas, and breeding cycles. Bats, barn owls, red foxes, Luna moths and many other animals are nocturnal and have evolved to adapt to darkness. Enhanced hearing, vision, and smell help them move around at night. Numerous bird species including warblers, thrushes, and buntings navigate at night by the stars. Plants are impacted as well, with prolonged exposure to artificial light preventing many trees from adjusting to seasonal changes. Night darkness serves as an incubator supporting the rhythms of nature.

The swath of a dark sky is considered a defining characteristic of wilderness along with opportunities for solitude, quiet, and access to land that is untrammeled. Distance light penetrating the night sky degrades the wilderness experience as does noise pollution and development. The value of a dark sky can be measured in the genius it has cultivated, including that of Einstein, Galileo, and Newton — all inspired by gazing up at the stars.

I vividly remember an A.T. section hike on a crisp spring day — and arriving at Beauty Spot in the Unaka Mountains of Tennessee to enjoy the sunset. The hues of the sky transitioned from shades of blue, to orange, and then black, offering a sensory explosion. The marvelous thing about a sunset is it’s only part one of the show. The subtle way colors melt to complete darkness while stars and planets emerge is fascinating. Marveling at how the Milky Way drapes the sky while connecting the dots between the Big Dipper and Orion was “astrotourism” at its finest. In this setting, we are liberated from the sensory overload of modern life. Free from light enticing us from smart phones and televisions, our imaginations can run wild exploring the universe while embracing the stillness and awe that beckons us from above.

The Appalachian Mountains have faced many challenges. When Thomas Edison’s light bulbs first illuminated New York City in 1878, little did we know how far light could reach into the deepest corners of the forest. Just as the Industrial Revolution brought various changes to the mountains, so did electricity, and the coal mining operations that soon followed to fuel the demand.

With the night sky brightening up to 10 percent each year, we might be one of the last generations to be able to experience truly dark night skies. We are inspired to protect what we value and know exists. Our urban lives are immersed in light, noise, and people. So, retreating from these places to darkness, quiet, and solitude — and looking up to get a view of pieces of the celestial puzzle that can light up the sky at night — can be truly life changing.

I remember when I first basked under a truly dark sky. I was 20 and up high in the Appalachians. I felt the cool air, the breeze, and had a sense that I was a small part of something colossal and amazing. Preserving the dark night ensures that future generations understand there is a vast universe daring us to explore and dream. Safeguarding continued opportunities to experience dark night skies in the Wild East and the spark of enlightenment it fosters is the one light we truly cannot turn off.

Illustration by Corey Sebring