Darkness and the Season of Lights

Happy Holidays! Since we're in the middle of the Festival of Lights, I'm thinking about the ups and downs of light - and dark - in Reston.

The holiday season is officially in full swing!  As many of you know, tonight is the fifth night of Hanukkah.  I’d like to say shalom to all of my Jewish friends who are kindling the lights on the menorah this week.  Christmas is still a couple of weeks off, but I’ve seen a lot of lovely light shows on the houses around Reston as I drive home in the evenings.  And last month, we had the Hindu holiday Diwali, which is also known as the “Festival of Lights.”  Talk about making the season bright!

I found myself wondering why so many holidays during this time of year, across many religious traditions, are associated with light.  I suspect part of the reason is seasonal; with the sun setting so early in the wintertime, anything that brings a little respite from the darkness is welcome.  But I think there may be another reason: light, with its brightness and warmth, is associated with community. 

Wherever people gather in numbers, there has always been light.  Whether it’s the glow of a campfire, the candles in the windows of a colonial inn, or the neon glow of a big city, you can be sure that when you see lights, you will not be alone.  Light is a symbol of the unity and togetherness that comes with community.

I’ve always enjoyed lights.  One of my favorite things about this time of year is checking out the Christmas displays that light up the night.  And I share with my daughter Leslie (who turns 12 on Friday – happy birthday, honey!) a love of neon lights; we cherish the sight of neon displays whenever we see them.  I enjoy the warmth, brightness, and color that lights provide.

Of course, even a light fan like me can agree that it’s possible to carry things too far.  When it’s too bright outside your bedroom window to sleep at night, that’s no fun.  Anyone who’s ever been to a casino can attest that the cacophony of light and sound can be fun, but it can also be disorienting and exhausting after a while.  In cities, there’s the issue of “light pollution,” the way that a city’s nighttime brightness can wash out the stars in the sky.  Light is great, but darkness also has its place.

Living in Reston gives me lots of opportunities to think about light and dark.  Reston is famous (or notorious) for having fewer streetlights than many suburbs.  My friends who visit Reston often comment on how dark it is at night.  For those who enjoy stargazing, this is a plus.  (My dad has mentioned this as one of the things he’s always liked about Reston.)  But for those who walk around at night, it can also feel unsafe.  These dueling perspectives help fuel the perpetual debate over whether to add more lights to RA’s paths.

The light vs. dark issue also comes into play when considering Reston’s future development.  As a place becomes denser and more urban, it also tends to be brighter at night.  Restaurants and shops stay open later, and office buildings cast a 24-hour glow through their windows.  When I was a kid, from certain vantage points in Reston you could see the glow of Washington in the night sky.  That’s no longer the case; Reston and the surrounding areas have grown up and now cast their own glow.  Again, this has its ups and downs based on your perspective; we now have better restaurants and more nightlife, but at the cost of more traffic and less serenity.

The view out of my childhood bedroom window provided a small-scale view of Reston’s growth.  When I was little, I could look out at night and see near-perfect darkness; a few house lights here and there, but that was about it.  Then Plaza America came along, and the red glow of the Michaels sign became my nightlight.  (During this time of year, the lights strung around the edges of the shops provided some nice visual variety.)  Then when I was in high school, the Sallie Mae building was constructed, practically in our backyard.  This changed the view dramatically, and for a few weeks after it came along, the lights shining through my window disturbed my sleep.  I adjusted in time, but I gained a new appreciation for the nighttime darkness in Reston.

The development around the Silver Line stations will likely bring more tall buildings and a more urban character to Reston, which means we’re only going to get brighter.  I’m all right with that, but I certainly hope we’ll be able to preserve some darker spots within Reston.

During my documentary interview last week, I was asked whether I preferred Reston Town Center or Lake Anne Plaza.  In my answer, I referenced this issue of light and dark.  When I had dinner in Reston with an old friend a few months ago, we visited both the Town Center and Lake Anne.  And one of the biggest differences between the places is light.  Town Center at night is bright and colorful, noisy and crowded, teeming with action and electricity.  Lake Anne at night is darker, quieter, sparsely populated, serene and peaceful.

I told the interviewer that in the end, I’m a Lake Anne guy.  And despite my love of light, I am.  I like peace and quiet, a place where I can walk and think and not be disturbed.  I’m glad we have the Town Center, and I look forward to seeing the development that will come in around the Metro stations.  But Reston wouldn’t be Reston if we became a 24-hour, always-on, bright-lit place.  So during this season of brightness, my holiday wish is that we’ll always keep a little darkness in Reston.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Lucinda Shannon December 13, 2012 at 01:01 PM
I often think about the darkness in Reston. I love walking in the dark and seeing the stars. I’m a small woman and I feel perfectly safe walking alone on the paths in the dark. I am not sure that the perception that darkness is unsafe is true. I recently started wearing a headlamp on my nighttime walks, mostly so as to not startle others. I’ve seen many people out on the paths in the dark with headlamps and personal reflectors on so they can see better and be seen. One additional benefit of using a headlamp or flashlight is you can see the eyes of wild animals reflected back at you. I love walking under the stars and looking into the blackness to see a group of deer staring back at me, or a lone raccoon or fox. I wonder what would happen to all these animals living in our backyards if we took away their darkness?
Connie Hartke December 13, 2012 at 01:38 PM
I love the darkness! How else would we watch for the geminids? http://reston.patch.com/articles/geminid-meteor-shower-peaks-thursday-friday
Lucinda Shannon December 13, 2012 at 01:54 PM
Here is a link to an interesting article about outdoor lighting, http://www.illinoislighting.org/safety.html. I like how they show pictures of different types of light and how sometimes the glare actually makes it harder to see than easier. When I moved to Reston I hated the ugly outdoor can lights we were required to keep on our townhouse. Then as I walked the neighborhood at night, I realized that these were great lights for walking and seeing stars. They light up the sidewalks, where you need to see but not the night sky, and they didn’t shine in your eyes blinding you. Now I am thankful for the thoughtfulness of the townhouses’ board’s directions.
Colin Mills December 13, 2012 at 01:59 PM
Thanks for your comment, Lucinda! You raise some excellent points. The feeling of safety on the pathways at night is, as you say, mostly a matter of perception. I feel safe on the paths, but I understand that not everyone does. Good point about the animals, as well. We tend to think of development's effect on animals in terms of loss of habitat, but the light and noise at night would likely disturb them too.
Colin Mills December 13, 2012 at 02:01 PM
Connie, thanks for your comment. I'm looking forward to checking out the meteor shower! I just hope the skies are clear enough for viewing.
Colin Mills December 13, 2012 at 02:05 PM
Thanks for the link, Lucinda. I remember being told as a kid about how Reston's lights were specially designed to avoid casting light up into the sky. I always thought that was a wonderful idea.
Bill Burton December 13, 2012 at 02:30 PM
Thank you Colin, Lucinda, and Connie for your balanced and thoughtful views about lighting. As a former member of a local lighting task force I/we helped to develop and get approved Fairfax County's progressive outdoor lighting ordinance, which promotes responsible, not excessive lighting and full cut-off designs. We need to stay vigilant on this issue as Metro Center and RTC continue their development.
Colin Mills December 13, 2012 at 03:16 PM
Thanks for the comment, Bill, and thanks for your work on the lighting issue! As you and Lucinda have pointed out, there are options that allow for effective, efficient lighting without creating excessive glare or brightening of the night sky. I agree that we should work with the new development to ensure that light pollution is kept to a minimum.
Dawn December 13, 2012 at 11:54 PM
Mr. Mills, I don't often do more than skim over headlines on Reston Patch, but this article had me from the beginning to the end. Well written and thoughtful. All the Reston contruction has us looking out our windows into much more light. I hope that when leaves grow back on the trees, we'll be in a little more darkness. But I do love Reston, regardless.
Colin Mills December 14, 2012 at 01:32 AM
Dawn, thank you for the lovely compliments! I'm really glad you enjoyed my article. I'm looking forward to the return of the leaves; I live near a patch of woods, and the leaves will block the view of the shopping center across the street. I'm glad that you love Reston as I do. Thanks again for reading!
Stella McEnearny December 14, 2012 at 01:34 AM
Beautifully written article, Mr. Mills, and this contrast is one of the reasons we've lived in Reston for so long. It's one of those rare spots in no. VA that still looks natural, rather than supernatural...via garish lighting.
Colin Mills December 14, 2012 at 03:09 AM
Thanks so much for your kind comments, Stella! Reston definitely stands out from the rest of Northern Virginia in a good way for our balance of light and dark. Thank you for reading!
Bill Burton December 14, 2012 at 03:46 AM
Saw 18 Geminid meteors walking around Reston National Golf Course for an hour this evening, thanks to our relative lack of lights.
Colin Mills December 14, 2012 at 04:24 AM
I stepped outside for a few minutes just now and I saw 2 or 3 of them myself. A striking display indeed!
Connie Hartke December 16, 2012 at 03:03 PM
Bill, please share your comment at www.facebook.com/RescueReston if you're so inclined. I'm glad to "meet" you and thank you for your work on the task force. When Paul & I built 2 cabins in the Smoky Mountains of TN, we used "dark sky" exterior lighting.


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