Book review: Under the Stars – A Journey into Light, by Matt Gaw
9 April 2023
At Elliott & Thompson, it would appear that dimly lit non-fiction is a favorite subject of some sort. Horatio Claire’s highly evocative and deeply personal “winter journal,” The Light in the Dark, was published at the end of 2018 by London-based publishers. In it, the author and journalist documented his struggles with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during a particularly wet and gloomy winter in Yorkshire. The story of Matt Gaw’s quest to reconnect with the night, or, as he puts it, “to immerse myself in the different types of light and dark that night to understand how the ever-increasing blaze of artificial light affects our natural rhythms and those of other species, to feel moonlight on my skin, to see a hard frost of stars across a dark sky, and to feel moonlight on my skin.
Gaw sets out to experience nighttime conditions in a variety of environments across the UK, or perhaps that should be said, stumbles out, in order to accomplish all of this. The contrastive locations are well chosen. Gaw visits Galloway’s Scottish Dark Sky Observatory in an effort to get the best view of the stars and learn more about them. Then, brilliantly, to learn how street lighting affects wildlife, he spends an evening sitting in a tiny patch of woodland near a roundabout in suburban Bury St. Edmunds. He calmly responds that he has been “having a cup of tea with an owl” when police question him.)
If that makes Under the Stars sound like a light-hearted read, it is, but Gaw does have a more serious agenda here, and the book is never lighthearted. His excursion to Bury St. Edmunds demonstrates that the artificial lighting that we are imposing on an increasing number of natural areas may be causing a variety of harm, the majority of which we are only just beginning to comprehend. He writes, “We have created another imbalance in the natural world that impacts on plants, pollinators, mammals, birds, and, ultimately, us by chasing away darkness and hiding the cues given by natural light.”
Under the Stars is very much a piece of New Nature Writing. Those who like to read about “cuticle-pale skies” and “beluga pale moons” will enjoy the richly evocative descriptions, which never feel forced or overdone.
It is always very impressive to read about people who are able to pinpoint their location in the middle of a forest in the middle of the night, in the style of Bear Grylls, but it is infinitely more entertaining to read about someone who is happy to risk getting a little lost if only – as Gaw does on Dartmoor, in a chapter called “Night Terrors” – in order to give himself a more genuine case of the screaming heebie-jeebies.
Even when discussing difficult ideas like the distances between planets, Gaw’s prose is always very easy to read, but there are times when you wish he went a little deeper into the subjects at hand. For instance, he tells us at one point that the exact causes of the phenomenon in which the moon appears to be larger just above the horizon than when it is high in the sky are “still debated.” However, instead of explaining the debate, he just leaves us hanging and moves on. Despite these flaws, Gaw will have you thinking about darkness in a whole new, ahem, light by the end of the final chapter, a magical trip to the island of Colonsay without streetlights.
Matt Gaw’s son remarked that we sleep for either 50 or 60 years, depending on whether you’re my sister, who prefers long slumbers, or 26 years. In six chapters that begin with the moonlight and end in darkness, Gaw serves as a wake-up call for us. His journey, which takes him from his home in Bury St. Edmonds, Thetford to the bright lights of London, Oban, and the Isle of Coll, which is designated a Dark Sky Community, leaves his family largely unimpressed.
At night, when I look out my back gate, I see that my neighbor has a light that appears to switch on and off and lights up my living room. My neighbor to my right has a light that is activated by noise and can be turned on and off. Because my partner wants to make sure that the cat doesn’t have anything in its mouth when it comes to the back door, I also have an unnecessary back light. In this, I did not receive a vote. Two streetlights illuminate our backyards: one outside our kitchen window and another less than one hundred meters away. Daft Rab, a former neighbor of mine, used to ride his moped outside twice a day to make sure they were still working. He would have simply sat in the house once every two weeks and checked them, but he was not only naive but also diligent. Naturally, everything is done now electronically.
To put this into perspective, Gaw provides some statistics. Light pollution is caused by nine million streetlights—one for every eight people. We are unable to see the moon or the stars when we look up at the night sky. He contends that something has been lost.