Light Pollution Clouds the Night Sky
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Credit: Photograph by Brad Goldpaint

The IDA and other light-pollution activists have also focused on creating dark-sky preserves, generally state or national parks, where visitors might glimpse what they've been missing. Along with Big Bend, the IDA's highest-ranked – i.e., darkest – parks in the United States include Death Valley in California, National Bridges in Utah, Cherry Springs in Pennsylvania, and Clayton Lake in New Mexico. Part of the selling point of such ratings is the ability to market dark-sky tourism. Though one might assume Governor Rick Perry and the deeply conservative Austin legislature would balk at any lawmaking that smacked of environmentalism, the fact is, dark skies are good for business, and so the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has agreed, with the blessing of the state, to assess all 93 Texas state parks for outdoor-lighting improvements and to send their park rangers to McDonald Observatory for night-sky training, in order to better teach visitors about constellations and telescopes.

Bill Wren has been a key player in advocating for such changes in West Texas and throughout the state, from shaping city and county ordinances to urging businesses and residents to change the ways in which they light their buildings. Wren's courtly, nonthreatening manner, and the fact that he grew up in a small town in Missouri and so can pull off saying things like "Get some grub" or "You'll see all kinds of critters around here" with the unself-consciousness of a native speaker, has surely contributed to his success ratio. Thanks to Wren's involvement, a Texas convenience-store chain called Stripes dimmed the lighting above the gas pumps at many of its 500-plus locations from 5,700 watts to 1,500 watts per canopy. "That's still enough light to top off your car and perform brain surgery at the same time," Wren notes drily. But he's not complaining.

One night, under the dome of McDonald Observatory's 36-inch telescope, built in 1956, Wren slides in front of a computer running an old DOS program and punches in some Messier catalog numbers from memory, whistling as he types. The Messier catalog compiles coordinates of various astronomical objects. Wren has just entered the coordinates for Saturn. The big telescope, shaded an institutional gray the color of a public school locker from the Fifties, swivels into alignment with an ugly grinding sound. Climbing onto a ladder, I peer into the finder scope and see what looks to be a cartoon drawing of the planet – a sailor's tattoo of Saturn! – along with three tiny dots that Wren explains are moons.

"That's not Saturn," I say.

"People always say that," Wren says. "They can't believe it."

Stepping out onto the catwalk, Wren continues, "Light pollution is a soft sell – it really is." If he sees bad lighting, Wren will not hesitate to knock on someone's door, often with a complimentary replacement fixture tucked under his arm. As might be expected, the initial response from Texans to a stranger telling them to change the way they're lighting their private property is not necessarily to invite that stranger inside for a Shiner Bock. "Really, very few people have slammed the door in my face, though that does happen," Wren acknowledges. "People will say, 'What the hell are you talking about?' or 'You can't tell me how to light my property!' But then when you tell them, 'Well, your neighbor across the street doesn't appreciate your light shining in their bedroom window,' they're like, 'Oh ...' It's like noise pollution. Blasting music at 2 in the morning and keeping people awake, or having a bright barnyard light keeping people up – same difference. And once people see that, they get it."

One of Wren's earliest memories is watching the moon rise through a pair of binoculars pressed up against the plate-glass window of his childhood home. He thought about becoming an astronomer but realized he wasn't wired for math and physics and so instead majored in philosophy, moving from the existentialists to Zen practitioners like Alan Watts. In Austin, he worked with runaway teens and their families, spending his free time playing poker and catching shows at Armadillo World Headquarters, the legendary Texas rock venue (where Wren proudly notes that he was present for the taping of Frank Zappa's 1975 live album 'Bongo Fury'). He also continued to pursue astronomy as a hobby, driving to the outskirts of town with carloads of friends and coolers filled with beer. He's since been told that a sports complex called the Field of Dreams has opened near his old viewing site, with lights "bright as televisions – out of compliance with everything." If he still lived in Austin, he'd have to find another stargazing spot.

Shortly after he started working at McDonald Observatory, Wren met David Crawford, the proselytizing co-founder of the IDA. Crawford, now retired, was an astronomer at Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona; he started the IDA in 1988, converting a legion of missionaries such as Wren. Like Crawford, Wren sees himself as an educator, and spends much of his time traveling around the state making PowerPoint presentations about light pollution. He's also been working with a natural-gas drilling company to design a demonstration rig with dark-sky-friendly lighting. (There's been a sharp increase in fracking in Texas in recent years, and federal safety regulations require high levels of lighting on the big rigs, with operators generally employing monstrous floodlights.)