A journey looking for the dark, to be able to see the light… the star light. An escape from everyday life chasing the less illuminated skies of Europe. So Irene Borgna left for a road trip following the stars. Irene Borgna, anthropologist and naturalistic guide, traveled looking for the furthest corners where you can admire the starry vault without light pollution. We interviewed her precisely to talk about the book she wrote after this journey, entitled Cieli Neri (Black Skies).
Black skies are threatened with extinction
So you left to chase skies, but how did you come up with this idea?
Irene Borgna: «My partner and I discovered the question of dark skies almost by chance, now they are very few in Europe, a rarity. The truth is that, probably, there is no one left untouched. We left for this adventurous journey driven by a playful chase for these spots and we got passionate about this issue, we wanted to understand who is taking the night away, and what stories are hidden behind these places.
I’m not a star expert, but the starry sky has a charm that is understandable even to the less experienced ones. Nature often communicates even without the need for interpretation, then obviously the more you know, the more you can see and understand. What fascinates me the most is seeing what happens when we are immersed in the dark from a physiological point of view… One out of four Italians has never fully used his/her retina, we doesn’t use it to see in the dark anymore».
Where did you stop?
Irene Borgna: «We live in Cuneo, near the Alpi Marittime, which we have discovered to be one of the darkest places in Italy. We weren’t aware of how lucky we were. We started from there and then went to Switzerland, in a valley that depopulates during the winter season, as there’s no electricity. The construction of large dams created problems for the cable that crossed the valley, so those who live there decided to give up electricity. It is a very dark place with lighting methods such as generators, lights and candles.
Then, from there, following the directions on the Dark Site Finder website, we headed to Austria, where we found some truly incredible places. I was impressed by a military zone, in which we ended up following the site, which is used to test weapons. In short, the trip to this training area was quite scary, but we found out that military areas, dark skies and wild animals get along very well.
In Germany (in Bavaria), we met the first sky which is consciously defended by the locals. A physicist noticed that it was one of the most beautiful skies in the area and loudly promoted its protection. He convinced people to turn the lights down and turn them off at a certain time of the night, it was the first dark sky park in the Alps protected by the International Dark-Sky Association.
In Berlin, on the other hand, we found ourselves in one of the very few places where you can see the Milky Way, even that community has decided to defend its sky».
Irene Borgna: «Our journey ended in Holland. We went to the Frisian Islands. Then we met an astronomer who founded Stars Without Borders, a dreamer who mobilized everyone to save the stars. On our return we looked at things in a completely different way, we went back to looking at our sky aware of its value.
I was very fascinated by these places, I started to get a lot of information because I wanted to understand why the sky was so important to all of us. The truth is, there are some crazy consequences. We waste money, we pollute and we hurt ourselves, as well as hurting the nocturnal species that need the dark».
How can light pollution be avoided?
Irene Borgna: «The nice thing is that, contrary to other forms of pollution, light pollution could be solved in a very simple way. There are many existing solutions that could be put in place, we wouldn’t have to go to sleep as soon as the sun goes down. The ideal would be to illuminate better, only when needed. With the arrival of LEDs that consume less, for example, we have done a great deal of damage, we have put them everywhere without worrying about the coldness of their light which is harmful to animals. If we implemented warmer lights and reduced the lighting, making it more efficient and smarter, we would have a very high quality sky.
Italy is among the most enlightened countries in Europe, with more than one and a half billion spending. However, there are local initiatives aimed at safeguarding dark skies… In Germany they make fun of us for the fact that we also illuminate extra-urban roads!».
But isn’t it dangerous to reduce street lighting?
Irene Borgna: «There is no scientific evidence about it. Lighting increases our personal perception of safety, but accidents do not decrease, light makes us feel safe and therefore we go faster. Crime won’t decrease too.
Working on light intensity would be enough, in some contexts the light blinds the surveillance cameras, a softer light could be more useful. Just lowering the intensity and making the lights warmer and more homogeneous would dramatically improve the way of life and night environments. We humans think that light is always positive, we do not perceive it as a pollutant. Instead it can interfere with sleep and the production of melatonin, for example».
How has your perception changed?
Irene Borgna: «Now there are lights that I can’t stand, there are street lamps that shoot light where not needed by projecting useless photons towards space. At some point you realize that a lot of people have not had access to the real starry night. An example of this distortion is the total change in contemporary perception of the night. Reading that Van Gogh had access to skies so black that he was able to distinguish the color of the stars seems madness to us. Mass electrification is a recent process, something as old as the night has been erased within 150 years»
How was Cieli Neri (Black Skies) born?
Irene Borgna: «I work for the Vena del Gesso Regional Park, where I deal with environmental issues and mainly with the study of wolves. I dedicate my free time to writing and this is my third book. Cieli Neri (Black Skies) was born from the notes taken during the trip, at each stage I accumulated some material. I reached certain people even during the lockdown, by any legitimate means, because I was really hungry for knowledge. I documented a lot but I wrote a story that could be accessible to everyone. A very realistic travel story, where all you need is a van, a dog and a spirit of adaptation. In the near future I would like to write a hiking manual for children and, hoping to succeed, a novel».