Summer nights can be magical. Who doesn’t remember long summer nights as a kid, chasing fireflies, gazing at stars, or playing kick-the-can? Shorts and a T-shirt were all we needed to dive into the mysterious and exciting, outdoor world of summer nights. Oh, and one more thing, we needed darkness.
Our world is becoming increasingly lit up at night. Sometimes this is for good reason, but often outdoor lighting is misunderstood, thoughtless, and irresponsible. Lighting can be done well, which can create safe, secure, and enjoyable outdoor spaces. It can also increase glare and create areas of deep darkness in a landscape which actually makes landscapes less secure. Lights left on indiscriminately are wasteful, costly, and can be intrusive to others. Often, it is better to have no lighting at all.
Luckily, a few simple steps can rectify many of the problems associated poor outdoor lighting. Putting hoods over light fixtures to direct lights downward will reduce glare and assure that the light is not bothersome to neighbors. Using motion detectors can decrease energy use, with lights coming on only when there is activity in the area, and LED lights are another great alternative. In the past few years, LED lights have come a long way, and using them no longer means you will have harsh, blue light. You can now choose soft LED lights for steps, paths, and entrances that will last years without having to replace a bulb.
My favorite solution to obtrusive outdoor lighting though, is to use none. We are big proponents of eating outdoors in the summer, and often find ourselves sitting in the dark after dinner. A family of screech owls has come to visit, landing in nearby trees, and whinnying back and forth to each other as the parents instruct their young on the best hunting techniques. These nocturnal guests would not have joined us had the area been completely lit.
When we do use lighting at our house, candles and tiki torches often do the trick. These forms of lighting seem more festive than electric lights, especially when they flicker in the warm breeze of a summer evening. Another great way to use candles for outdoor lighting is to place them into sand or gravel in the bottom of mason jars. They will make long lasting and decorative outdoor lanterns that can be arranged on steps, plant stands, or hung from trees or fences.
For special occasions, bonfires are a great way to illuminate an area, and have the added benefit of providing a way to make S’mores! (I like mine with dark chocolate and burnt marshmallows). Bonfires can be built away from the house as a getaway destination, or fire pits can be designed directly into a patio area. They are easy to build and make a great gathering place any time of year.
So this summer, make it a point to enjoy the evenings outdoors. Listen to the katydids and tree frogs, and, if you are lucky, an owl or two. Look at the stars. Appreciate the warm air on your skin. And as often as possible, do it in the dark.
For more information about the importance of proper nighttime illumination, please visit the website of the International Dark Sky Association.