2015 Documentary Watch Project: The City Dark

I will never forget the first time I saw the Milky Way: camping in a field on a friend’s North Georgia farm during my senior year of high school. I knew then for certain what I had begun to suspect for quite some time – as an adult, I would do everything I could to avoid living where light pollution blots out the stars. I’ve done pretty well – since college, I have lived in Arizona, Montana and Wyoming, including two National Parks – as far from big cities as possible. For many years I lived in Tucson, one of the best “dark skies” cities in the U.S., and now I’m back in Wyoming, that lightless black velvet void on any satellite photo of the Earth at night. Stars abound in the Wyoming skies.

The City Dark is a film about stargazing, but it’s also about what we, as human beings, might be missing when we can’t see the stars. When our perpetually bright metropolitan lights deny us the wonder of physically seeing and comprehending that there aren’t just a few scattered constellations and pinpricks up there, but billions. This film is about the nonhuman realm, too – sea turtles, migrating birds, fireflies. Endless electric light doesn’t simply blot out the heavens, it may be affecting bodies and brains in calculable, physical ways.

Not everyone has the opportunity to move to the country, of this I’m well aware, and so is The City Dark. It’s actually true that some people like living in big cities – what? Director Ian Cheney relates several stories about growing up in rural Maine and moving to the city. We gravitate toward light – its vibrancy, its safety. But why can’t we design more efficient lighting that serves all our needs? We can.

I loved this documentary. Loved it. It’s the pacing – languorous, nostalgic, heartfelt. Ian Cheney’s calm, almost tender, narration. The soundtrack by The Fishermen Three & Ben Fries – ethereal, dreamy, electrofolk. Sharon Shattuck’s animation and the cinematography by Cheney and Taylor Gentry. The seamless blend of astronomy, interviews, biology, poetic observations, even poignant humor. (Also: Neil deGrasse Tyson!  Ann Druyan!)

I watched a documentary about the Hubble space telescope the other night. Lots of drama about 1990’s scientists and astronauts heroically fixing a problem with the telescope’s mirror so that we might peer deep into the universe and thus, our own origins. I walked out into the starry night and thought about how seeing the Milky Way isn’t really about “seeing it” but realizing that our planet, our solar system is in it, not the center but a wee small part, spinning with the hundred billion other galaxies in the observable universe. When I wish upon a star, I wish that everyone has the opportunity to experience that more than once. Start with The City Dark.


“United States at night” by NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC – http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/NPP/news/earth-at-night.html.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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