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27th February 2023

The Darkness Manifesto Review: Johan Eklöf’s illuminating new book sheds light on the night but warns us against doing the same

See the world through a new lens as Johan Eklöf’s ‘The Darkness Manifesto’ poetically exposes the dark undertones of nature, politics and pollution for better or for worse.
The Darkness Manifesto Review: Johan Eklöf’s illuminating new book sheds light on the night but warns us against doing the same
Photo: Theo Abbott @ The Mancunion

We’re now a few months into that time of year made up of depressingly short days swamped by endlessly long nights. Despite the December festivities, for many, ‘tis simply the season of long shadows and dreary darkness. It’s more than valid to be feeling anything but jolly.

Recently translated from Swedish to English by Elizabeth DeNoma, Johan Eklöf’s fascinating tribute to darkness is the perfect antidote to such a seasonal slump, offering to change our perspective on the night.

Eklöf provides a captivating insight into how the natural world is dependent on darkness and how the artificial light of human activity disrupts this.

The book’s accessible science is delivered with a lyrical and personal perspective on nature. The poetic writing style and non-fiction appeal ensure that there is something for everyone, regardless of academic degree or prior interests.

The vague yet powerful associations that we all harbour about darkness, often equating it with fear or evil, are turned completely on their head by Eklöf.

Instead of seeing darkness as an absence of light, we are encouraged to see light as an absence of darkness – an absence that is harmful to the huge swathes of the planet’s inhabitants for whom darkness provides an essential sanctuary.

From bats to bees, from songbirds to seals, Eklöf takes us on a trip to diverse corners of the animal and plant kingdoms. Through his fluid and easy-to-follow writing, we learn how important an unpolluted night sky is to each organism.

Eklöf evokes a darkness that pours like a rich balm into all manner of caves, crevices, and habitats. It’s through these vivid descriptions that the gaping cracks and gaps in our own perception are revealed back to us.

Hidden from human sight, but brilliantly exposed by Eklöf’s prose, there is a darkness out there teeming with activity, a ‘night-life’ starkly different to the kind we’re used to in Manchester.

With another writer, this could easily become a dense, list-like encyclopedia of nocturnal life. However, Eklöf achieves a fine balance between scientific findings that build a compelling vision of the world, and a poetic acceptance of the beauty of the unknown – the undiscovered darkness invisible to the naked human eye.

The book also drives home the fact that, due to light pollution, what we see as darkness is far from the reality of a natural night sky.

The next time you find yourself in the city centre at night, take a moment to look directly upwards. You’ll see what Eklöf means when he refers to the soupy ‘grey-orange’ or ‘yellow-grey’ sky that hangs over our metropolitan cities and blocks out the stars.

Apart from the moon, it often feels like the closest thing we have to a visible celestial body is the bright red lights atop the Deansgate skyscrapers, providing safe navigation for the closest thing we have to shooting stars – aeroplane traffic coming in and out of the airport.

Manchester has a long history of pollution, with the industrial revolution smothering the city in soot. Eklöft talks about light spilling out from our cities in much the same way as one would air pollution:

‘The light pollution in the sky rubs out galaxies and distant solar systems, as if we had used a dirty cloth to wipe the window facing the universe’

December added more dirt to the cloth – Christmas lights adorned the streets with their own starry night, albeit constantly flashing and garishly bright.

Eklöf explains that this imitation of nature in our artificial lighting – no matter how poor an imitation it may seem to us – is one of the biggest problems for nature when it comes to light pollution.

Our city lights dazzle migrating and mating animals, pointing them in the wrong direction through false dawns and summers – natural phenomena that, in their original forms, are standard navigation tools for many creatures.

We interrupt their circadian rhythms – a set of internal processes affected by the day-night cycle – and trap them in impossible mazes of artificial light.

Eklöf seems tormented by the disruption of these ‘ancient rhythms of life’. To a large part, it’s the rhythm of the book itself which makes his meditations on them so compulsively readable.

The book is divided into small, digestible chapters, most of which follow a similar cycle.

First, we take an immersive plunge into one of the beautiful natural scenes of Eklöf’s fieldwork, before he seamlessly extends this personal experience into a biting take on disruptive human involvement in nature.

These short and sweet sections are fruitful sources of information and inspiration for us, despite often dealing with the potentially fruitless future that light pollution could force us to confront.

This is because, as Eklöf outlines in much greater detail, the foreign rhythms that we impose on plant and animals put even pollination under threat, a terrifying prospect for agriculture.

Despite the glowing endorsement that I’ve given The Darkness Manifesto so far, it is by no means without its limitations.

I can imagine that those studying life sciences may wince at the more than occasional personification of plants and animals in the book.

It makes for an entertaining read to hear about what non-sentient creatures ‘know’ and how some beetles do a little ‘dance’ to reorientate themselves, but it is at least worth noting that Eklöf is working firmly within the pop-science remit.

Additionally, unlike other manifestos, The Darkness Manifesto is decidedly apolitical on the social front.

I don’t doubt that, as a white man whose research often secludes him to the starry, idyllic Scandinavian wilderness, Eklöf sincerely believes that ‘the night is quite simply our friend’.

However, we know all too well in Manchester (as the huge turnout to this year’s Reclaim the Night suggested) that for many, it quite simply isn’t.

This is all to say what The Darkness Manifesto doesn’t do, and how Eklöf refuses to stray from his pristine and undeviating vision for his book. Despite its limitations, it has great merit within the framework that it operates and is well worth a winter read.

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