Reflections on Dark Sky tourism

This post is an edited excerpt from crepuscular ramblingthe personal blog of AUSCCER’s Ben Gallan. Ben is completing a PhD with AUSCCER. In April he travelled to Lake Tekapo, on the South Island of New Zealand, to experience Dark Sky tourism.

Crepuscular/early evening sky.

Dark skies as de-alienating?
The area surrounding Tekapo was listed as a ‘gold’ status Dark Sky Reserve last year by the International Dark-Sky Association (something I blogged about previously). One of the major ideas that has drawn me to the Dark Sky movement is a discourse of de-alienation. By this I mean dark skies are often promoted as being a conduit through which people can realise their place on Earth. Viewing an unobstructed night sky is an experience that supposedly helps contextualise the human place in the universe. Our smallness. Our relative insignificance. This process (like other cases of eco-tourism) is thought to promote more holistic environmental awareness. 

Nocturnal, diurnal, crepuscular skies
I definitely got a sense of how awe-inspiring gazing at such a clear night sky could be in Tekapo. However, I think this is an equally stimulating experience anywhere – to sit and watch the sky change hue during crepuscular hours. It is difficult to draw a line where this specifically relates to the night sky and light pollution. My time in Tekapo was enjoyable also for diurnal and crepuscular skies. The area is stunning, not only for its star gazing, but for cloud formation, wide open vistas and mountainous surrounds.

I personally didn’t get a sense of the night sky being drastically different to elsewhere. This, of course, is relative to your previous experiences. Exiting the bus during the night tour there was a bright object passing over our heads. To me it was obvious this was a satellite; I grew up in rural NSW and seeing this kind of thing in the night sky was nothing shocking. For many in the group though it was startling – too slow for a shooting star, what could it be?!

Crepuscular transition

Interacting in darkness and weather
The night tour was a good insight into how social interactions can change under cover of darkness. I’ve tried to put myself in this situation a few times during the process of my PhD, to try and feel more comfortable in darkness, to try and ignore feelings of danger or uncertainty when it becomes hard to see. After getting off the bus, the first 15 minutes at the observatory were amusing in that sense. It takes a good while for your eyes to adjust to darkness, to develop your night eyes. Some people obviously found it hard to balance.

During the stay I also noticed a total preoccupation and anxiety around weather. The guides were at pains to issue the disclaimer repeatedly: “weather can change at any moment, there are no guarantees”. Considering this, Dark Sky tourism seems to have a profound effect on opening people’s eyes to the wider cosmos, yet everyday earthly issues of weather can be a profound nuisance and unknown. I found this an interesting interplay and contradiction between the earthly and the cosmological. A notion of asymmetry between humans and both physical earth systems and the universe that plays out in two distinctly different ways.

Prompting imagination
The experience of the night time tour certainly captured imagination in particular ways. Every distance in light years was met with the appropriate ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. I also overheard lots of speculative comments about the possibilities of new planets, alien species, different rivers, oceans, mountains and forests. To this I thought different cities? Social relations? Economies? The list could be endless. But I feel much more at home here thinking about Earth.

So, can Dark Sky tourism and preservation movements open up people’s eyes to new understandings of day and night? Perhaps. Yet without broader consideration of this in the context of everyday life and in urban environments I feel it can only be a relatively narrow stimulant for change. The big challenge, I suppose, remains to translate the experience of the Dark Sky Reserves into meaningful action. The time spent in the Dark Sky Reserve definitely gave me a lot to think about, and it was an inspiring place to think about the night, the day, the crepuscular. Though I went there with this explicit purpose. Even in Tekapo certain notions of day and night remain as rigid or restrictive as anywhere else…

To read this blog post in full and to see more photographs click here. You can follow Ben on Twitter here.

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