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Under the Stars: a Journey into Light


Matt Gaw (Elliott and Thompson: 2020)

One of the comments on the back cover of this book describes this title as ‘lyrical’, but I am not sure whether this does the book complete justice. This is a book that is in part a hymn

in praise of the joys of natural darkness and light, and which includes some poetic passages from the author’s personal experience of being under the moon and stars. However, it is also a wake-up call to the extent that the darkness of night is threatened or indeed, in places, obliterated by the activities of human beings and how this affects animals, plants and the environment generally. The book offers a cogent argument for the importance of recovering the power of the night and halt- ing the spread of what is generally known as ‘light pollution’.

The book is comparatively short, but packs a big punch in terms of its thesis and how it is argued. It is divided into six chapters, each dealing with a particular theme related to aspects of the night and the way human activity has pushed it back, covering such subjects as the myth and reality of moonlight; stars, starlight and the constellations; and a cautionary

tale of the author’s trip to London to sample the artificially lit scenes in the centre of the capital.

Following this, one of the chapters deals with his forays into his home town of Bury St Edmunds after dark. Sublime descriptive passages nestle cheek by jowl with some clear explication of research findings and the science behind how the natural world is affected by the retreat of night. Interspersed with this are reflections on the folklore and myth of darkness, the moon and stars, and some philosophical consideration of quite why human beings have over the centuries found the night so frightening. I must admit I found the author’s range of knowledge and use of language impressive: who knew that the night jar was also known as the ‘lich fowl’ or that, for criminals, the moon was known as ‘the tatler’?

I found this book absorb- ing, thought-provoking, at times challenging, and it certainly made me realise that the unstoppable spread of human-created artificial light is far more than just an astronomy problem.


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