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16 September 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:40pm

An A-Z of the night sky

Matt Gaw's Under the Stars is part diary, part self-exploration, and part clarion call for change.   

By Alison Hibberd

Matt Gaw is a writer and naturalist from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and Under the Stars is his second book, the idea for which was sparked by a conversation with his young son about the unfairness of his bedtime. A teacher had told his son that we spend a third of our lives asleep and to the boy that meant missing out on far too much. Gaw reflected on what exactly he might be missing, and subsequently embarked on a series of journeys in order to experience the day-night cycle anew.

The book is a record of those journeys and it is part diary, part self-exploration, and part clarion call for change. Above all, it is a kind of cultural A-Z of the night sky and everything connected, dense in its references to literature, philosophy, nature, history, science, religion and folklore. You could say it’s illuminating in more ways than one.

Gaw begins his investigations on the beach at Covehithe in East Anglia where he gives his full attention to sunset, twilight, a full moon and, on a repeat visit, an electrical storm. He is amazed at the intensity of the moon’s glow – apparently it reflects the sun’s rays twice, both directly and as a bounce-back from the Earth’s surface.

Next, motivated by satellite photographs of Britain at night, he visits the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory at Dalmellington in an attempt to see stars in their true magnificence. Initially, he stumbles around blindly, realising how maladapted he is for night-time navigation. But he adjusts and is overwhelmed by the vastness and clarity of a starscape without competition.

A third trip takes him to north Dartmoor, where he contemplates mankind’s instinctive fear of the dark while journeying on foot along the Wych Way to Wistman’s Wood. He has deliberately chosen an area renowned for dark and supernatural tales in order to challenge those fears and understand what has driven us to seek the ­comfort and reliability of artificial ­illumination. Losing touch with the natural but impermanent star and moon light was perhaps an essential trade-off for a greater sense of security.

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Subsequent journeys take him to London, one of the most artificially lit places on Earth, and then back to his home town. In the capital he is angered by the countless glaring buildings wasting energy and money, sitting beneath a misty orange sky. The dark of night, he notes, “seems to live only in the cracks of the pavement”. For the author, Piccadilly Circus is a symbol of the separation of the natural world from the urban one. The major renovation that took place there in 2017 brought Europe’s most technically advanced digital screen, which uses 11.6 million light bulbs. But by way of mitigation the development company that owns the site purchases all of its electricity from renewable sources; so while it is contributing to light pollu-tion, it is minimising its contribution to global warming.

Finally, Gaw goes all out to experience total darkness on the Isle of Coll, just north-west of Mull in Scotland. “There’s no lighting to bother you here” says the ­barman at the Coll Hotel. After a storm Gaw observes that “stars form a breathy mist of smashed glass; the clouds that remain shine in the moonlight like burnished mirrors”. Designated a “Dark Sky Community” in 2013 by the International Dark Sky Association, Coll has no street lighting at all.

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In Gaw’s book there are many fascinating discoveries, including the fact that one of Britain’s most powerful lighthouses, Northumberland’s Longstone Lighthouse, uses a 1,000W light source, yet people are using as many as 500W to illuminate their back gardens. Clearly, that makes no sense at all, and in order to protect wildlife, reduce carbon emissions and save money we must make do with far more moderate lighting.

Under the Stars falls within the genre of the new nature writing and imparts an ­important political message while ­capturing in melodic prose the beauty and mystery of the night sky that can still be discovered today, if only we are prepared to look.

Under the Stars: A Journey into Light
Matt Gaw
Elliott & Thompson, 208pp, £12.99