• John Sannaee

Returning to Starlight

I first saw the stars when I was twenty years old. I am not, of course, talking about the North Star or the Plough, nor indeed the Sun—our closest, most necessary star. No. I am talking about great, long, sprawling, trailing currents and streams, waves and oceans of stars: a sky so full that I finally understood why it had been nicknamed the Milky Way.

Standing on the Suffolk coast one summer evening after the sun had slipped far beyond the marshes and heaths to the west, the stars startled and sparkled in a way I never would have believed could be possible. I was staying with a friend from University who had grown up nearby, and though she was not blasé, she found these distant, ancient lights somehow ordinary; but our other friend, who like me grew up beneath the perpetual twilight of an urban area, was similarly enraptured by this display. Raised in the hinterland between city and suburbs, nights felt dark, their deep blue masked and shrouded, but even away from houses and streetlights on rare cloudless nights, the sky’s true content remained hidden from me. When people talked of stargazing, I gave it little thought and imagined a telescope to be necessary as a bare minimum. The revelation that, far from the dusty magenta glow of the city, the sky could dazzle with an infinite number of lights, which could merge into a distant creaminess or be picked out one-by-one with focus and attention, made me realize the importance of the lights that govern our world, our lives, and the rhythms they have, or once had.

Most of my adult life has been spent living in flats—apartments, appartements, departamentos, call them what you like—in various cities, but principally in Paris. Il est cinq heures, Paris s’éveille. Even though the sun rises at five in the morning in the summer months, few Parisians keep to the rhythm of natural light. As in most major cities, artificial light—electric, strip, candle, LED—rules over our lives as the sun and other stars once did. Paris, of course, boasts of being la ville lumière for its enlightenment thinking and for the beautiful ways in which its streets and monuments are illuminated in a seemingly permanent glow. Paris’ density is perhaps exceptional, its glow thus amplified, the lights above the city dimmed except during stretches of summer heat when the sun beats down so hard you could almost believe it was inches from your parched, sweating skin. The Parisian night-time knows no star.

It was, it could be argued, Paris that put out the lights. The enlightenment, of which the city so proudly boasts, was the moment when, in the West, artificial lights, human thought, and mechanical and scientific advances definitively replaced the lights of nature, which had ruled the rhythms of human lives, like the rest of the animal world, since that very same light first created life. It is only fitting, then, that this modern, archetypal metropolis beats out its lifestyle in ignorance of the stars and to rhythms suited for extended labour and consumption, ploughing back monetary recompense into this post-enlightenment economy through evening hours in the warm, inviting half-light of terrasses, cafés, bars, theatres, and restaurants.

For some years I had been uncomfortably conscious of this artificial light, these artificial rhythms, the absence of waking up to sunlight and seeing stars strewn across the sky in a celestial goodnight. What did I know of the moon’s influence, what did I feel of sunlight, how many times had I gazed upon the stars as a fact and not the rare exotica of a weekend away or a chance encounter?

Then, early this year, it stopped. Now, life and light are slowing to a standstill close to the rhythms of the sun and stars again. Part of a process, an effect ricocheting around the world, the confinement imposed in reaction to 2020’s coronavirus pandemic brought the rhythms of three centuries of moving away from the day and night to a stuttering stall. So, I heeded the moment and did what I had been on the verge of doing: I sought the stars, and I fled.

I had the good fortune of being able to spend this most strange, disturbing, and isolating of times with my family-in-law in the countryside, far from the city. This has been a time of questioning and re-evaluation for many: for me, it was the moment that confirmed all I had already thought I knew and needed. To see the stars, to awake to bright sunlight, to walk through wood and field and vineyard, over the garrigue and see them for what they are in the light that nature intended, it felt like a coda or a confirmation of that evening thirteen years ago, when I awoke to what was beyond and above my urban life. Since returning to the Paris area, I have chosen to dwell outside the city, on the edge of the forest, learning to be a part of the rhythms of the natural world, its days and seasons, trying to unlearn the enlightenment and hope not for all to be illuminated, but to accept that which is and that which is not. The sun and the stars can give us—almost—all the light we need.