Light, pollution, memory

Light pollution

I remember the first time I ever observed light pollution. I didn’t know what it was, and I’m not sure it even had a name back then.

It was 1993. I was in college, and I was home for Easter. In fact it was early Easter morning. My uncle was staying with us, in my room, which was in the process of becoming the guest room. He always stayed in my room when he stayed with us. Eventually I would stay in that room, as a guest room, not my room, once I was no longer a resident of the house, but a guest.

At the time, though, I was not yet a guest, though no longer quite a resident. Nonetheless, he was visiting, so he got my room and I was relegated to the couch in the family room. The family room, which had been added on in 1987, when I was 13, had two skylights. One was directly above the couch, so when I was lying on the couch I could look directly up at the sky.

When I was growing up, cities, at least the small town in which I grew up (which I always thought of as a city, despite its modest population of 26,210 — which was no longer the population, but had been the population in the 1970 census, and the city could not yet bring itself to acknowledge the loss of over 10% of its population in the subsequent decades, so it still appeared on the signs as you drove into town) had not yet switched over to sodium-based street lights. However this particular small town/city had made the switch in the brief time since I had gone off to college at an even smaller town — one small enough that even I could make no pretense as to its being a “city.”

I awoke in the middle of the night. Technically, the early morning, Easter morning. It was overcast, and as I now know well, in a city illuminated by sodium streetlights on an overcast night, it is never truly dark, never truly nighttime. Instead, the best you get is an eerie orange twilight, which is what I observed for the first time in my life, that early Easter morning in 1993, 20 years ago.

It was perhaps 2 AM, and as I awoke, then arose, and walked to the kitchen to get a better view, I beheld the city aglow in an unnatural orange luminescence, and… well… it freaked the shit out of me. I had never seen anything like it, and I didn’t understand what could be causing it. Being Easter morning, and being highly impressionable, especially to my own half-lucid, half-dreamlike fantasies, I was sure Armageddon, or… something… was nigh.

Of course, it was not. And eventually I made the connection between the reference to sodium lights I’d heard on Sting’s The Soul Cages album with the eerie orange light, which has since become commonplace in my mostly urban adult life, where I am usually far too busy or distracted or just simply tired to bother to look up into the sky at night and think the kinds of existential, philosophical, cosmic, spiritual, infinite thoughts I used to dwell on so much between the ages of 5 and 22.

But tonight, for a brief moment, I lingered at my back door in south Minneapolis, with a glass of scotch in one hand and my iPhone in the other. On that late night/early Easter morning 20 years ago, I’m not sure which of the two would have seemed more out-of-place in my hands. Surely both would be just as out-of-place as apocalyptic paranoia in my 2013 brain. But still, the connection to that moment half a lifetime ago was there, and I was transported back to a place where I can stare into the sky at night, silently, and wonder.