A week ago I was putting away my book and heading to bed when my neighbors set off a fireworks show in their yard. I stopped to watch out our windows. Between the intermittent booms and dramatic flashes, I noticed a closer light show. Dozens of fireflies were lighting up the field and edge of the woods. The contrast was startling.
The loud and splashy show from my neighbor represented an artifact of our industrial, globalized society — devices transported half way around the world for an ephemeral show in mid-June Maine. The fireflies, twinkling randomly in the field were somehow more real, a natural mating display of a normally invisible resident of the Maine landscape. These were light shows real and fabricated.
Robert Frost also noticed the fireflies in his garden:
Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies
That, though they never equal stars in size
(And they were never really stars at heart),
Achieve at times a very starlike start.
Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.
The link between stars and fireflies in Frost’s poem struck me forcibly the day after my neighbor’s fireworks when I learned that new research shows that one third of humanity is unable to see the Milky Way even on the clearest of nights. The culprit here is us. Artificial lights of human society (called by some, light pollution) so fill the urban and suburban night sky that many people cannot see the stars, including the Milky Way.
Our preference for fireworks over fireflies and artificial lighting over the stars of the night sky is one more manifestation of the coming of the Anthropocene, the idea that humans have become the dominant force in the workings of planet Earth. This change was not intentional. Rather it was the result of individual people making decisions that they believed were in their best interests. The result was the accelerating growth in human population and in individual consumption in the 20th Century.
The cumulative effect of this growth is seen in lots of ways, including our light shows. We replace the lights of nature with the light shows of humanity. My wish is that all of us might note the fireflies of the Maine summer and the stars of the night sky as a reminder of what we are losing as we are more separate from and also dominate nature. Perhaps we will decide that we can forsake some of that growth to keep some of the lights of nature in our lives.