“From the Maritime Alps to the North Sea in search of places where the night has not yet been suffocated by road and city lights, and stories that lie hidden below the last black skies of Europe.” Cieli neri
, published by Ponte alle Grazie, is the diary of a journey made by Irene Borgna in a camper van, in the summer of 2019, with her partner Emanuele and her dog Kira.
To observe a more or less intact sky where you can see as many stars as possible, you need to be surrounded by a radius of almost 200 kilometres of darkness. And that is a very rare situation in Europe. In fact, the journey recounted in this book touches on some very remote locations. Locations that are difficult to reach, abandoned or closed to humans for one reason or another. And that is why they are so enchanting.
But regarding Cieli neri exclusively as a travel log does not render exactly what this volume is, as it also contains passages that are similar to journalistic reporting. This includes article-like texts on light pollution, and reflections on the sense and importance of civil commitment to defending starry skies. “As an anthropologist I am in favour of extreme hybridisation,” says Borgna, “so I enjoyed mixing literary genres.”
A map of the points reached in the journey narrated in Cieli neri. Map by Diego Viada.
Thanks to Irene Borgna for allowing us to use these images.
The book accompanies readers in a kind of personal training course on nature and the consequences of light pollution. “When I set off, I knew almost nothing about this matter,” recounts Borgna. “Then, I became better informed, and the book grew out of my enthusiasm for both the journey and all the discoveries I made thanks to the interviews I conducted during and after the trip.” The author’s curiosity investigates the biological, historical and cultural reasons for our positive prejudice
towards brightness that we tend to transform into an excessive use of artificial light, and the undesired consequences that this level of waste has on the availability of resources, human health, and the biodiversity
of our ecosystems.
At a worldwide level, the country with the highest percentage of land polluted by artificial light is Italy. The Po Valley, in particular, as Cieli neri indicates “is one of the most dazzled and dazzling areas of the entire planet.” This statistic comes from Atlante mondiale dell’inquinamento luminoso
(The Worldwide Atlas of Light Pollution) by Pierantonio Cinzano and Fabio Falchi, published in 2001 and updated in 2016 by an international group coordinated by the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute (Istil).
The book accompanies readers in a kind of personal training course on nature and the consequences of light pollution.
A map of light pollution in Europe.
In recent years, a lot has been said about ecology, but almost nothing about light pollution. Why is it overlooked? Perhaps because we can’t intuitively frame it in the context of climate change?
Light pollution is a bit of a Cinderella, because people don’t know all the effects it has. To a lot of people, it probably just looks like the obsession of some capricious amateur stargazer or a problem for astronomers whose scientific observations get disturbed by artificial light. Then you find out that we consume huge amounts of fossil fuels to produce light and shoot it into the night sky for no reason. So, you realise it’s not just useless, but harmful. Not only for us, but for all the species that need nocturnal darkness. At that point you realise that asking why light pollution is such a problem is not a luxury.
Especially as it really wouldn’t take much to significantly reduce it, especially compared to other forms of pollution that are much more complicated to tackle and manage. Just think of the legislation drafted in 2012 in Italy, called Operazione Cieli Bui
(Operation Blue Skies). That would have resulted in incredible savings in terms of energy and public money, and it would have been a revolution that could have been implemented from one day to the next, whereas other forms of ecological transition are more laborious.
The sky above the Cuneo Alps, and the glare of the city in the valley. Photo by Federico Pellegrino.
There are actual tourist guides to starry skies. Do you think that leveraging tourism and financially developing certain locations is a feasible way to safeguard starry skies or would this simply cause other types of pollution?
It could be useful, but it is not the solution. It is a bit like natural parks. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t need them, because everybody would behave properly. But, in reality, we create ecological sanctuaries because we are not capable of having a balanced relationship with the environment. Moreover, natural parks are important communication hubs. The same is true of darkness sanctuaries, like the Dark Sky Parks
or the Reserves
of the International Dark-Sky Association. Here, too, in the Grana Valley, near where I live, there is an amateur astronomer who is fighting to have the sky above the Gardetta Highlands recognised as Unesco heritage. I speak about this in my book too.
These initiatives are useful for launching a message, for remembering that the sky above our heads is precious. The real achievement would be to democratically restore, to all humanity, a more intact sky.
In the Zirbitzkogel-Grebenzen Nature Reserve, between Styria and Carinthia, Austria.
And from a legal point of view, is establishing the right to a starry sky (implicit in the 1997 Declaration on the Responsibility of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations) simply underlining a principle or could it become something concrete?
I am for anything goes, anything for the cause that is. The Declaration is useful and important like all great declarations that have made history and marked a step forward. It is a global awareness-raiser. But it is also true that until it becomes binding as national or international law, it is just dead paper.
If you think that now our sky is full of a vast number of satellites, some owned by wealthy private individuals like Elon Musk, and that this one man can now partly decide what our sky will look like in the coming years, then you will probably say, “goodness, perhaps introducing a convention that recognises that we are all, literally, under the same sky, would not be so stupid after all.” But this requires binding laws that need to be respected, otherwise all we are doing is polishing our consciences.
Starry night from a mountain refuge.
Does the loss of a starry sky also take something away from our inner life?
I have now been living for a month in a village where you can see a minimum of 450 stars that, according to the astronomer Bob Berman, you need to hug with your eyes to feel the true wonder of a night sky. And I feel the huge difference it makes. Sometimes, when I am speaking in schools, I realise that some people have never seen a sky like that. And I find that quite scary. I don’t think there is any research which shows that growing up without a starry sky, dulls children’s minds, but I am convinced it is important for all of us. The ultimate experience of being connected to something that is truly vast, that gives you a new dimension and makes you feel that you belong, is looking at a sky so full of stars it becomes three-dimensional.