The millions who lost power during last week’s devastating storms in the mid-Atlantic may have had a saving grace: A sudden glimpse of the stars.
A Staten Island astrologist in the film “The City Dark” admits the only two times he saw the Milky Way was the two times the city was hit with a blackout.
But even now a loss of power resulting from the storm may not be enough to bring back stars, says Ian Cheney, director of the documentary, set to make its TV debut tonight on “P.O.V.” (PBS, 10 p.m., check local listings)
Residual light, reflections on particles in the air and the natural haze and air pollution have all conspired to create a kind of permanent glow in the cities to obscure one of the most enchanting thing about living on Earth: the night skies all around us.
“The City Dark” is an elegy for the star-spackled skies of Cheney’s Maine upbringing and his challenges in his adopted home of Brooklyn to find even a handful of stars amid the glare of the city.
Cheney, whose earlier films dealt largely with agricultural issues, from his examination of a single crop in the U.S. in a quirky way, “King Corn” to his attempt to grow a small garden in the bed of his city pickup, “Truck Farm” to the chronicling of a green building in Boston, “The Greening of Southie,” spent three years shooting the night skies in the city, and in places where you can actually see the stars, back in Maine or in refuges for astronomers, in Arizona and Hawaii.
His path took some unusual turns, toward the effects of lack of night on turtles, who start heading toward the shimmer of cities instead of the oceans as they should; birds, whose migrations are messed up by the lights of night, and people, whose melatonin rates that are replenished at night are not, and as a result, some scientists think it’s tied to the rise in breast cancer.
It’s a lot to cover in a film that runs about an hour on TV, especially when a lot of it is made up of wondrous pictures of the stars and galaxies, that twinkle and glitter to the dreamy music of Simon Beins, his Yale roommate who performs under the name The Fisherman Three (the soundtrack to “The City Dark” has earned a jury award for best music score at the SXSW Film Festival last year in Austin).
Cheney, who was in D.C. last week to talk to NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” stopped at Union Station to talk about the film and how he came to make it. “I had heard that for the first time the population had shifted from rural to urban,” he said, “and I found this mirrored the shift of my own, moving from the country to the city. How do you tell people what it is to grow up with the stars when there aren’t any around? Ho do you tell that story?”
Mostly he pointed the camera up, and managed to catch the constellations move between buildings. But as the story moved to sleep science and disruption of the circadian rhythms, he was as surprised as anyone.
Cheney admits in the film he becomes as entranced with the man-made lights of cities seen from the skies, shining like their own constellations, though they’re responsible for the inability to see the stars at night.
And there are complications for trying to curb light pollution – some people in cities are sure that brightly lighting parks at night, for example, has cut down on crime.
Still, there are things cities can do to cut the lights streaming pointlessly out into space – and some have.
Comparing his work on “The City Dark” to his previous environmental films, Cheney says, ““Every star we bring back to the city sky is like planting a tree.”