Southold was not much more than dark, rolling farmland when the Custer Institute and Observatory’s first building went up in 1938. The group’s founder, Charles Elmer, was an amateur astronomer so enamored with the night sky that he had built a telescope into the side of his Cedar Beach home and began hosting astronomy-loving friends there. (The men named their group not for the notorious general, but after Elmer’s wife’s maiden name, to thank her for the hospitality.)
It was Long Island’s first public observatory. Early members who gathered to watch the skies included Henry Perkin, with whom Elmer would cofound PerkinElmer Optical Company, which would later make mirrors for the Hubble Space Telescope, and David Rothman, the founder of Rothman’s Department Store in Southold. In the summer of 1939, it is said, Rothman struck up a friendship with Albert Einstein, who had rented a home on Nassau Point and wandered into the store in need of some sandals for the beach.
These days, a brightly glowing gas station light signals the turn from Main Road onto Main Bayview Road toward the observatory. Still, as night falls and I pull into the observatory’s unlit parking lot, this property remains an oasis of dark.
The nonprofit institute is still run by amateur astronomers, who possess formidable expertise. The dome on the roof houses a 10-inch Zerochromat refracting telescope, the largest of its type in the United States, and the institute’s collection includes more than two dozen telescopes of every variety, some of them built or rebuilt by members. Every Saturday evening from dusk until midnight, if the weather cooperates, volunteers show visitors dazzling electronically assisted views of the planets, the moon, nebulae, galaxies and other deep-sky sights. And on any clear night, stargazers dot the fields watching for meteors or perfecting their night-sky photography.
Surrounded by dark stretches of water, the North Fork offers some of the best stargazing on Long Island, with the Milky Way frequently visible in summer. Plus, “the pandemic has caused more people to be at home, and with more free time and not vacationing, allowing immersion into backyard hobbies such as stargazing,” explained observatory director-at-large Alan Cousins. He joined me on a tour of the facility with member Steven Bellavia, an engineer and physics professor at Suffolk County Community College, and Anne Spooner, who runs public programs like summer concerts under the stars.
I’m one of those people who has crept out to see the sky more often over the past year. I’ve watched the moon wax and wane and the constellations shift with the seasons, taking comfort in both the change and the constancy. The stars and planets don’t know or care about COVID-19. It’s humbling to think that these are the same skies that Einstein looked up at during his summers in Southold.
This is not, however, the same view Einstein had. Because even as interest in stargazing grows, the dark that has drawn people to the observatory for eight decades is under threat. Increased population and development in the area means more light at night — what environmentalists call light pollution. “Light pollution spoils the natural view of the night sky that our ancestors appreciated,” said Bellavia. It also harms the health of plants, animals and humans.
That’s why earlier this year, the observatory partnered with local businesses, civic and community groups to form the North Fork Dark Sky Coalition. Part of an international dark sky movement, the group’s goal is to raise awareness of the ill effects of light pollution and protect our view of the stars — before we accidentally erase it.
Marina DeLuca grew up under North Fork skies. “One of the things I remember doing for comfort often when I was a kid when I had a bad dream, or even as a teenager when life started getting complicated, would be to go sit and look out my window for hours at the stars. That consistency was so calming to me,” said DeLuca, a recent graduate of Union College and environmental associate for the Group for the East End. Some nights, her friends would meet up at the beach. “You could just lay out in the bay and float on your back and see all the stars above you. It really feels like magic, it feels otherworldly to have those moments and to be able to take the time to appreciate them.”
That was only a few years ago, but when COVID brought her home to the North Fork last year, DeLuca noticed a difference. “Even now looking out my window, the view of the stars has been pretty disrupted,” she said. “Some of the neighbors have lights posted at the end of their driveway, and the whole street that used to be pitch black at night is now lit up.”
In her role at the Group for the East End, DeLuca has become an advocate for dark skies and an organizer of the new coalition, which also includes the observatory, North Fork Audubon Society, North Fork Environmental Council, Blossom Meadow Farm, Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association and others.
The coalition is wide-ranging because the effects of light pollution are wide-ranging. Outdoor lighting wastes energy, releasing 21 million tons of carbon dioxide per year in the United States, according to the International Dark-Sky Association. It turns night to day, upsetting the entire nocturnal ecosystem. Frogs and toads, whose nighttime croaking is a mating ritual, reproduce less. Birds, owls and sea turtles, drawn to artificial light, may migrate at the wrong time, nest in the wrong place or be drawn off course and die.
As local farmers are keenly aware, nocturnal pollinators like moths also play a key role in healthy crops. “Light pollution disrupts this natural cycle of pollinating plants,” DeLuca said. “It draws insects into the light and can exhaust them or kill them.”
Your own biological clock is thrown off, too. Darkness releases the hormone melatonin, which helps you sleep and supports your immune, adrenal and reproductive systems. Loss of that natural circadian rhythm increases risks for sleep disorders, obesity, depression, cancer and heart disease, according to a 2016 report from the American Medical Association.
Environmental progress doesn’t always feel easy, but in this case it’s as simple as flipping a switch. “Turn off your lights when you go to sleep,” urged DeLuca. If safety is what worries you, know that most home invasions and violent crimes happen during the day, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey. Well-aimed motion sensors and timers can help you use outdoor lights when and where they are truly necessary.
People think we are for dark skies because it’s our hobby, but it’s important for everyone.Alan Cousins, director-at-large of the Custer Institute and Observatory
Most of all, avoid the scourge of the night sky: uplighting. This common landscape gardening practice “looks pretty,” said DeLuca, “but what you’re actually doing is shining light directly up into the habitat of nocturnal species, whether it be birds or insects who live in those trees and plants. And secondly, you are dispersing light into your neighbor’s property and directly up into the sky.”
Uplighting is illegal in the Town of Southold, which passed an exterior lighting code for fixtures installed after 2010. But many residents and business owners either aren’t aware of the rules or inherited older setups that aren’t dark-sky compliant. The ideal lighting is fully shielded and warm-white (a Kelvin rating of 2700K or lower). There’s plenty more info and advice at northforkdarksky.org — but merely being aware of the problem and changing a few lightbulbs can make a big difference.
Even when you’ve come to the North Fork for an escape, the city that never sleeps can be hard to quit. “I heard somebody say once that, wherever you go, you take a piece of where you’re from with you,” said DeLuca. “For a lot of people who are coming out here, they’re coming from a more well-lit, urbanized area. So they bring those lights with them. You look outside and you think that your house should have lights on it. There’s nothing wrong with thinking that, but we’re trying to rewrite that narrative, to say, ‘No, we don’t want those lights. There’s another way of doing things that also has value.’ ”