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July 25, 2014

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Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark

Edited by Paul Bogard. University of Nevada Press, $21.95

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Darkness is so many things: It’s where the imagination is free, it’s where mysteries hide, where dreams rule, it’s what allows us to see the stars, it’s what allows nocturnal creatures to thrive, it’s what sets our internal clocks, it’s what gives us, and much of nature, a rest—it’s full of wonder and replenishment. Or so is the consensus of writers who have contributed to the collection of essays Let There Be Night, edited by Paul Bogard.

You run the risk of forgetting all of that when you live in Vegas, a city determined to overcome night. From the daytime-sky-painted ceilings in the Venetian to the lights of the Strip, Vegas is not a place where the authenticity of night is welcome. Nightlife here means something entirely different than to the writers in this collection, who seek to remind readers that night—dark, natural time away from the sun—has an essential role in our lives.

The book is divided into five parts: spirit, the sky/stars, imagination and story, the place we live half our lives and our animal body. Each offers several odes to the wonders in its category. Of stars, Christopher Cokinos writes, “Sometime this week you were outside at night. You saw stars or you did not. Likely you did not see 2,700 of them. Under a clear sky free of light pollution, you could.”

It’s a moving reminder that we see so few stars in the Vegas vicinity. I happened to be at the Grand Canyon while considering this book, and had the opportunity to bathe in the shimmering of a much larger portion of those 2,700 stars than from our standpoint in Vegas. It was magnificent. It made me wonder why we ever thought that our man-made lights would be a better show.

But a more moving share of the book is devoted to the mystery of night and its cultural significance in developing art, story and personhood.

“Night, by virtue of making apparent ‘outer space,’ is both our most minimal and maximal place, and is where and when we inhabit the deepest shape of our mind,” writes William L. Fox in “Night in Mind.” Here, Fox points to the magical nature of night, which is both a blank slate for the imagination and yet somehow also a deep, full well of things that are actually there but which we don’t know—things that are hidden.

“We believe too confidently in eyesight,” writes John Daniel. “Through most of our doings we carry around us, like a snail in its shell, a room veneered with that which is visible from moment to moment, and we tend to call that paneled room reality. But even in broad daylight, eyesight shows only a pittance of what is. ... The universe ... seems to be mainly composed of a substance they call dark matter ... Nature is largely a creature of darkness.”

Philip Hiscock, in “Night Folklore in Newfoundland and Labrador,” invokes images of sitting around a small campfire under the vastness of night as the backdrop for storytelling, and says that the richness of creativity diminishes in daylight: “Along with electricity and governmental regulation of traditional customs came a kind of homogeneity that reduced the former opportunities for local and personal creativity. The dark ... gave special strengths to its overcomers.”

While reading this book, I became a devotee of night again—not shopping malls and casinos and the Strip, where night is subdued into day, but of the quiet, unlit moments in my home, or outside where at least a few stars are visible. I started listening to the quiet ambiance of the dark, and being inspired by the richness and simplicity of it. The book is a valuable reminder of an enormous part of our existence we may, especially here, take for granted.

“The dark night is one of nature’s most precious gifts,” says Chet Raymo in “Why the Night Sky is Dark,” “which we fritter away to our detriment.”

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