Anne here, pondering darkness. But first, a little story from my past. As a teacher, I took many kids away on camp. Many schools these days site their "camps" in warm, comfortable buildings, but some of the schools I worked at couldn't afford that, so we pitched a motley array of borrowed tents on the ground, under the sky. (The photo below was taken by my friend Fiona McArthur.)
Many of those kids had never been out in "the bush" as we call it here, generally meaning untamed country, the wilderness, often national parks, and early on, I discovered something that quite shocked me.
Having grown up in cities, and often on high-rise housing estates, the concept of the dark of night was completely unknown to the students. Wherever they went at home, there were security lights, and even where there weren't any (or they were broken), the general light pollution of the city ensured that they could still see, more or less.
Far from the city, camping out in "the bush" they were away from street lights, there was no light pollution and, if the moon was hidden by cloud, it was dark — completely, utterly dark. And for some of them, that was unexpected and quite frightening.
The first time I realized this was on a night hike, where torches (flashlights) were banned, because we hoped to observe the many nocturnal native animals around. But we hadn't gone far when the moon disappeared behind thick clouds, and the kids completely freaked out, clumped together and refused to move another step.
The problem was, they had never been outside in complete darkness — didn't know "the dark of the night" was a literal description. There was blackness all around them and the night was filled with strange and alarming nocturnal sounds. There are no wolves or bears or big dangerous animals here. But shy, cute and fluffy little possums can make a very scary sound. (You can hear it here.) (Not that we could hear anything else with the noise the kids made after they heard that.) But it was a real eye-opener to me — and to them, of course.
These days we rarely experience total darkness. Even in a darkened bedroom, chances are various devices will be glowing faintly — a digital clock, a fan, a charging phone or reading device — lightening the darkness. And even without any devices present, if you're in a city, light pollution will dissipate the darkness.
But in the past, the dark of night was absolute and ever present. In rural districts, working people went to bed soon after sundown — perhaps staying up for a few hours, courtesy of a lantern or a few candles or rushlights — that's a rushlight on the left — or the fire, whichever they could afford. But a rural working day was generally from dawn to dusk.
For many people a customary term for the fall of night was the "shutting-in", the time when shutters and doors were locked and barred, and watchdogs (canine and human, depending on the situation) were loosed. For most people the darkness was filled with dangers, both real and imaginary.
No wonder some ancient peoples worshipped the moon. And worried that the sun might not rise again in the morning.
In the city, after dark, danger lurked everywhere. Wealthy people hired men to carry lanterns and to protect them. And householders clubbed together to make their streets safer. In 1417, Sir Henry Barton, Lord Mayor of London, ordained "Lanthornes with lights to bee hanged out on the Winter evening betwixt Hallowtide (1st November) and Candlemassee." (2nd February)
Paris was first illuminated by an order issued in 1524, and, in the beginning of the 16th century, the inhabitants were ordered to keep lights burning in the windows of all houses that faced streets.
As artificial lighting became more common, the desire grew for it to be readily available to the public: partly because towns became much safer places after gas lamps were installed in the streets, reducing crime rates. (Of course, once gas lights were invented and gas lanterns installed in the street, it was the wealthier areas they lit first.)
By 1819 nearly 290 miles of pipes had been laid in London, supplying 51,000 burners.
And by 1859, gas lighting was to be found all over Britain and about a thousand gas works had sprung up to meet the demand for the new fuel. The brighter lighting which gas provided allowed people to read more easily and for longer. This helped to stimulate literacy and learning, speeding up the second Industrial Revolution.
I've barely touched on the topic — and have restricted it to European lighting, but the history is fascinating, and there's so much more to learn if you're interested. Try this book At Day's Close, by A. Roger Ekirch
The sight of those iconic gas lamps is rather a romantic one, don't you think? The photo on the right was taken by my friend Keri Arthur here in a city park in Melbourne, a week ago. Electric, of course, but reminiscent of the old gas lamps. (And yes, some of my friends are talented photographers, as well as writers.)
What about you? Were you frightened (or nervous) of the dark when you were a child? Are you still? Is it dark at night where you live, or does light pollution chase the darkness away? Have you ever experienced total darkness? (I did once when I was briefly shut into a 19th century gaol cell — I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I can't imagine how the prisoners endured it.)