Light Pollution and the Human Condition

Stars.  The guidepost of the cosmos laid out before us, heralding the greater universe.

To some, the message which the stars depict is a welcoming one, to others they represent a terrifying glimpse at the enormity of reality.  Regardless of how you interpret the stars and our cosmic horizon it is indisputable that the night sky and our view of the Milky Way’s starscape has continually sparked the human imagination to varying degrees.

Arguably the stars have been the single greatest guiding element of human culture since our prehistory.  Science, art, and mythology all owe their origins, in some part, to the stars and those ancient ones who studied them.

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The constellations of Earth’s night sky

From the roaming nomadic tribes of our earliest ancestors to the later sea faring naval adventurers of history, the stars were literal guides through the dark places.

Imagine eons ago, before the modern day, around fires and yurts when deep discussions and wild speculation took place regarding the nature and origin of the stars.  It is these conversations and stories, now multiples of millennium lost to us, which were passed down from family to family, generation to generation, clan to clan, and shore to shore.  It is this type of human speculative imagination along with our yearning to understand and provide meaning for our larger surroundings which eventually became the basis of human culture.

While deciphering patterns from the spaces between the stars humankind the world over formed tales of their own, myths which comforted them, evils which terrified them, heroes they aspired to, and Gods in their own image.  Though they certainly didn’t realize it at the time those ancient forgotten humans who were wondering wide-eyed at the vast night canopy were in fact creating the modern world through their star gazing.

But what significance do the stars hold in this modern world of ours?

Over the last several hundred years the stars have faded from the sight of many and there are doubtless some who have lived and died without looking up into the night and seeing the galaxy staring back.  All due of course to the gradually increasing amount of light pollution blazing outward from the most heavily populated modern locals.

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The lights of our modern world 

Now of course we can all see some stars at night, there are those bright and wondrous holdouts who burn defiantly and still shine even among the places of heaviest light pollution.  The moon too is a powerful looming reminder of the worlds beyond our own which wait in space.  But for all the light polluted city dwellers and suburbanites, the hundred or so stars that can clearly be discerned become almost laughable when compared with the true majesty of the cosmos which is revealed in places of near total darkness.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience this in places like Cimarron, New Mexico and to a lesser degree in some parts of rural Ohio.

There is something simple and amazing about finding yourself in a secluded spot of nature away from the ubiquity of electric lights and being able to take a few moments to stare up and truly examine the contents of the heavens.  When looking out into the unobscured mass of stars there can be some fantastic sensations: Feeling the almost oppressive enormity of the night sky overhead, being able to clearly trace the cloudy path of the Milky Way; the profile of the galaxy itself, and examining the range of sizes and hues which make up the stars.  These are only a portion of the inspirational effects a few moments of deep stargazing can elicit.

I am certainly no historian, psychologist, or social scientist but having had the chance to experience this view of the stars, which has widely been lost to many of us in modern times, I have to wonder what effect a lack of such views will have on future generations?  Something which has had such a formative effect on the human prehistory has slowly been lost to us through our gradual advancement.  As lights constantly spring up in greater numbers across our civilizations and as our nights become far less black, what change will that have on us as a sentient species?

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On the left the constellation Orion seen in a “dark sky” on the right the same constellation near a light polluted urban area.

 

I can’t help but think the human psyche and imagination has already been affected in some way.

Perhaps as a way to assuage our hubris we as a species should have nightly reminders of our minuscule stature compared with the rest of the universe.

Perhaps we should have more exposure to the celestial orbs and sparkling heavens for the sake of our collective imaginations.

Certainly all types of pollution are harmful.

Our waste is killing our planet, it’s flora and fauna.  Smog and garbage, chemicals and putrescence all slowly kill our natural home and our individual bodies.  However what about our minds and our abilities to wonder and dream?  Does light pollution in some ways extinguish imagination and the sensation of awe in the same ways it extinguishes the stars?

What benefits might there be for us if there could be a restoration of darkness?

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Seasonal Dread

So it seems like winter is going to be a little clingy this year.  The cold grip of the dark months is reluctant to release us into the warm embrace of spring and summer!  The trees are beginning to bloom, flowers have sprouted up from beneath the soil, and we’ve already had several days in the 70’s.  Yet alas we are once more plunged into the 20’s and 30’s and slapped with frost and snow.  Then with a violent whiplash it thaws for a few days and teases our senses with a few hours of warmth before decimating our hopes and dreams with more cold and schizophrenic flurries!

However when you think about it, how bad can it really be?  We know a warm-up is around the corner (eventually) we just have to wait it out a few weeks until our planet’s tilting axis can really set into place and hit us with a little heat.

Now here’s a question:  Which is worse, a lingering winter that delays our joyous springtime making us anxious with anticipation?  OR a prolonged autumn that teases us with warmth but which leaves us dreadful for we know it can’t keep away the inevitable encroachment of winter?

Personally I love the winter so I don’t see anything wrong with either of these options.

That being said, just because one loves snow and cold doesn’t mean they’re not susceptible to the dismal affect it can have on ones mood!  If the winter months were simply a solid stretch of crisp, sub-zero temperatures, with piles of snow and ice slowly accumulating over the months it would be perfect.  However there are always those gross stretches of winter, usually at the start and end of the season, where the world is just snowless and barren and grey and bland.  Those inglorious times when it’s not quite cold enough to freeze and the ground is frothy with mud and slush.  Sidewalks, cars, and roads are washed out with thick coatings of salt and the earth and sky seem to swirl into a colorless smear of greige.  Trees are bare, grass is trampled, and any other plant life is shrived and brown.

That’s when I’m not a fan of winter.  That’s when I find winter depressing.  When the world seems like a silent, cold husk, and all hope is lost.

While flipping through my notebook I found a poem I wrote that deals with this subject:

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‘Late Autumn’ by Hugh Bolton Jones

Thoughts at Late Autumn

Nature in an unnatural state, 

A monument between moments.

 

Sunlight strung through barren limbs, 

Where once drapped abundant shade

 

The beams bring about warm contrast, 

Against cool breeze and rock I sit upon

 

Distant sun persists cross sky and face,

Minds grow chilled as adjacent solstice snarls

 

A great Titan looms on haunches plotting,

A dead season to brood atop the world

 

And like those dimwitted lords of Othrys,

The Yule tramples white uncautiously

 

To consider evasion as unheralded it proceeds,

To die in grey vaporous thoughts of ennui

 

Struck with cyclical amnesia fearful, despondent,

In mortality, as behind so ahead, is forgot

 

Soon though the phoenix arises us anew

The grip of stasis released and revived

Chilled, bitter life, greyed again greens

The Killer in the Trees

This has been an odd winter in Northeast Ohio.  The season has been mostly snowless and warmer than usual.  Precisely the type of winter I despise.  If it’s going to be winter I’d prefer to have a thick sustained layer of snow across the landscape and a crisp windless day for which to enjoy strolling through said winter wonderland.  I know a lot of people say winter is depressing and ominous but there is something infinitely more unsettling to me about a winter that is snowless and lukewarm.  I personally have no desire to see denuded brown trees looming over dull muddied grass all set before a gloomy grey panorama of sky.

While pondering this failed attempt at a season I was reminded of a story from a recent season that was less of a disappointment.

This past summer I stumbled upon a wonder of nature previously unknown to me.  Some might describe it as a terror best left to obscurity.  Others would classify it as a specialty of niche predation which exemplifies the intricacy of evolution.  Though I suppose I might be getting ahead of myself. To the beginning!

I work at a desk, and not some fancy post-modern work space designed for maximum ergonomic comfort, but just a traditional computer, chair, desk type of desk.  Therefore I try to get up from my seat and get myself into motion whenever possible.

During my lunch breaks I’ve taken up walking around the manicured lawns and parking lots of the office park.  Rain, or shine.  Sleet or hail.  Every day at 1:30 I stretch my legs enjoying what limited range of nature is allowed to remain among the concrete and asphalt.

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Corporate Woods is a pleasant melange of corporate and wooded elements

As the summer escalated and the “park” aspects of the office park were at their greenest and most active I began to regularly encounter wasps.  Not just any wasps mind you, huge bright orange wasps with perpetually vibrating wings and a pretty intimidating complexion.  These wasps were always at the same spot during my circuit around the parking lot, along a stone retaining wall.  The wall is at the edge of the office park where the complex abuts against an actual park (a small municipal park which is little more than a glorified walking trail).

Anywho these wasps were particularly active and seemingly abundant.  If I found myself walking too close to the wall I’d inevitably encounter several of the orange behemoths zooming out from their roosts to encircle my head menacingly.  I at least assumed it was threatening though I never found myself chased by wasps or even encircled by them for more than a moment.  I did my best not to antagonize the inch long creatures but also didn’t hang around too long to find out how frightening they could be.

Regardless, I was now curious.

Every day I’d try to observe a little more about the wasps as I’d pass the wall.  I learned that the wasps emerged from small holes burrowed in the narrow strip of dirt between the curb and the wall.  Each of the holes seemed to be guarded by a single wasp.  As I would pass the sentinel wasps would launch themselves into the air and pass uncomfortably close until I hurriedly went on my way.  Strangely I never saw the wasps anywhere else throughout the park.  I mean I’m no wasp expert but these were fairly big bugs and hard to miss.  Yet I only seemed to see them by their nests and not out and about sunning themselves on leaves or carrying off small children.

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“Mind ya business square, find another flower to sniff.”

As the summer went on my interest in the wasps waned and I would simply cast the insects a sidelong glance and a how-do-you-do as I walked past the wall.  During hotter days I would wander into the cooler refuge of the small municipal park.  While on milder days I would sit on the lawn, in the shade of the commercially planted trees which are evenly spaced along the edge of the parking lot and I’d scribble out a few lines of compulsory, sun induced poetry.

It was while sitting in the grass one day, in the shade of a small tree, that my interest in the wasps returned to the forefront.  Out of the blue a loud buzzing sound erupted from somewhere in the tree.  I could hear rustling and leaves being batted around.  By the sound of it I was convinved it had to be a bird but why was it buzzing and falling?  I quickly closed my notebook and waited to see if my questions would be answered.  Then the falling, buzzing, rustling sound grew closer and came crashing out of the tree to land only a few feet away from me.

I instantly recognized the shape of a large cicada.

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Trivia: Cicada’s believe themselves to be the heroes of every story.  They’re always wrong.

That explained the buzzing.  However I quickly realized the cicada wasn’t alone and was in fact wrestling around on the ground with the biggest wasp I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and not just any wasp, it was one of my wasps from the wall only bigger!  Cicada’s are no small things themselves and this wasp was lording over the cicada, easily a full two inches in length.

I quickly realized that this was a fight to the death and the wasp clearly wasn’t about to lose.  The enormous wasp repeatedly jabbed its stinger into the abdomen of the struggling cicada until finally the buzzing died down and the cicada went still.

That’s when the crunching began.

Scooting in as close as I dared I could see the wasp already chewing on it’s prey and I could clearly hear the working jaws crunch the insects exoskeleton.

It was about this time that I realized I was really close to this scene and I really had no idea what it was or how temperamental it could be.  It was also about this time that the wasp took the air in tight circles around her kill and that brought her in close proximity to me!

I decided it was time to make a hastey retreat but I vowed to return to the spot after work to see exactly what was left of the cicada.

Spoiler alert: nothing was left.

Well of course I had to finally know what kind of exotic giant wasps I was dealing with.  As soon as possible I googled “Wasp that kills cicadas” and was immediately rewarded with the most obvious google response I’ve ever encountered.

Did you mean: Cicada Killer Wasp?

Yup that’s what they’re called.  Sphecius speciosus The Cicada Killer Wasp or Cicada Hawk.  They apparently exclusively eat cicadas and are crucial in keeping cicada populations in check.  They are solitary wasps and the females are larger and seem to do most of the actual cicada killing.  That was the lovely example I met beneath the tree.  The males remain back at their underground lairs guarding the nests.

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A giant CKW performing her namesake action!

Perhaps the most surprising thing about these voracious killers (they have killer in the name) is that they are quite docile.  The females have stingers with some degree of toxicity but are reportedly not that painful for humans.  Males just have barbs on their tails which they use for defense or frighten off rival males.  For the most part however the Cicada Killer Wasps are gentle giants and not at all aggressive.  It even states on Wikipedia regarding the males: “Although they appear to attack anything that moves near their territories, male cicada killers are actually investigating anything that might be a female cicada killer ready to mate.”

So even the close encounters when walking past the wall was just the wasp equivalent of cat calling.  Clearly I wasn’t what any of them were looking for.  Always the wasp’s maid, never the wasp.  Le sigh.

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Anywho it was an interesting discovery for me and one that I thought worth sharing with all you dear readers!  Take a look at the Cicada Killer page on Wikipedia, read up on these gentle giants, and keep an eye out for them.  Maybe you could even do them a solid and toss a cicada their way once in a while!

That is all!

Is This A Post About Squirrels? Yes.

I know that there are a great many homeowners out there who dislike squirrels.  As a child I recall my own father hijacking my BB gun in order to pelt the arboreal rodents with a hail of BB fire in order to deter them from getting under our aluminum siding.  It didn’t really work of course.  That particular BB gun wasn’t really powerful enough to do significant damage at any distance further than three feet.  I’m sure those squirrels weren’t happy with the stinging bite of brass that harassed them, but they also weren’t really smart enough to correlate that pain with their attempts to live under our siding.  However that BB gun sat by the backdoor that entire summer, ready for action at the first sight of pesky varmints.  And that entire summer squirrels continued to try and pry back that loose aluminum until finally it was repaired, thus solving the problem and ending the crusade against the squirrels.

My wife Lauren and I have heard similar stories from friends and people we know who have had their own troubles with the bushy tailed acorn eaters, and as home owners ourselves it’s a problem we hope we never have to deal with.  For us squirrels have been a great source of entertainment throughout our relationship.  During our courting years I recall taking long walks around the neighborhood or hikes through the local parks and occasionally stopping to watch the antics of a group of scurrying squirrels.  When we were in college I remember one particular visit Lauren made to Rio Grande where we walked around the campus and came upon a small baby squirrel.  The little guy was doubtlessly scared and as he did his best to clamber up the nearest tree with his tiny squirrel hands he looked over his shoulder at us, raised his little tail, and pissed in our direction.  Whether it was out of fear, or to deter our chasing him, it was a delight!  Nowadays we enjoy watching the squirrels of our own backyard.  The frisky frolicking of spring time and the ridiculous manner in which squirrels pat the ground when burying their acorns in the fall, we are continuously finding the little bastards amusing.  Of course on occasion I have been forced to bludgeon to death half dead, semi paralyzed, squirrels who were not quite fast enough to outrun the great huntress Maple, our female puggle.  I have an efficient system for this though.  Using what I like to call my “Kill’n Shovel” I am able to end their mangled suffering with a quick whack and then make another pass to scoop them up and deposit them in a trash bag.

What I’d like to see is an in depth animal documentary about the typical neighborhood animals of the American Mid-West.  I want one of those nest view cameras in place in a squirrel bungalow in order to see just what they do up there.  I want to see how the crows and squirrels battle it out for tree space.  I want to know the daily struggles of chipmunks, and the dangers of feral cats.  I’d like to learn just how much of a threat hawks are to neighborhood rodents.  I want to validate my theories that raccoons have created a sewer based Shangri-La and built a society and economy based on banana peels and fish heads.  If nothing else, though, the squirrels.  I want to know more about the squirrels.  It just seems to me that there is a very interesting subject there just waiting to be put on film.  Oh, and the documentary should be narrated by Eric Idle.  Yeah, I think that would be perfect.  Mull that over.

Now someone write a letter to Animal Planet or Discovery Channel or whatever and get this going.

That is all!