Holiday Light Pollution Shines Brightly at Botanical Gardens
Updated: Jan 15
Sometimes I wish I could take off my awareness glasses and go back to ignorantly enjoying things that harm our ecosystem. For example, before I was aware of the damage caused by light pollution I thought the brighter the holiday lights, the better. I was able to compartmentalize my love of nature, and it didn’t even occur to me to wonder how blinding light displays might impact the nocturnal ecosystem. I also appreciate the magic of a brightly lit Christmas tree and I’m aware that going hard on the idea that maybe the magic needs to stay inside might touch a third rail, even with nature lovers. I have no intention of being a grinchy home holiday light pollution scold, so I’ll just say a string of twinkly lights around a porch for a few hours in the evening probably has little lasting impact, but there’s no way a Griswold’s Christmas Vacation display isn’t eco-destructive in multiple ways.
The trend of excessive holiday light pollution created by botanical gardens around the country though is a different matter. Every botanical garden with a light display also has an educational emphasis on the stewardship of the environment, sustainability, protecting biodiversity, conservation, restoration, protecting wildlife habitat, and/or preserving and promoting native plants. During the holidays it appears they all conveniently take a vacation from protecting nature in some way to actively glorify the disconnect between the needs of the natural world and the increasing desire for fake, man-made spectacles. The idea of nature is used as a selling point. A major opportunity to lead by example is nowhere to be seen
This year the display theme of the 50-acre Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond is even called Naturally Connect. The garden unironically claims the millions of energy company funded lights “highlights how we are all connected to each other and Nature”.
This past week we were generously treated to a first-rate corporate get together at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, with access to the Garden Lights; voted the best holiday event in Atlanta for the last four years by AJC readers. I tried hard to put my advocacy away for the night and not to be a buzzkill as we wandered through the garden’s 30 acres filled with more than a million light bulbs. In one display called Nature’s Wonder, vertical lights are suspended from the treetops of old growth hickories, oaks, and tulip poplars in the 10-acre Storza Woods, one of Atlanta’s last remaining old growth urban forests. Nothing says nature like a techno-light display! All I kept thinking about was the enormity of the light pollution and all the damage being done to the nighttime ecosystem. In addition to the habitat damage at the gardens, the wildlife next door at the 186-acre Piedmont Park is also undoubtedly impacted by the lights, loud music and sold out crowds every night for two months.
I don’t want to single out Georgia's botanical gardens because this phenomenon is not unique to us. I don’t know what the longest running show is, but the 24-acre Denver Botanic Garden’s holiday lights have existed for 30 years. When we lived in Denver briefly in the late 90s this was my first botanical garden light show experience. Most botanical gardens don't have a light show, or they have more traditionally scaled holiday themed events. This trend seems to be proliferating mainly at larger botanical gardens. In 2019 the 385-acre Chicago Botanic added a holiday light show. For the first time, this year the 52-acre Brooklyn Botanic Garden added music and a million-bulb light show called Lightscape complete with a forest of illuminated trees and a pond with lasers shooting across it! Their website entices you to “celebrate the beauty of nature in winter on this enchanting trail animated by a curated soundtrack and over one million dazzling lights.” When I think of the beauty of nature in winter the image of more than a million dazzling man-made lights isn't the first thing that pops into my head! I wonder if this lightfest impacts the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s 3-acre Native Flora Garden. with a century old forest, a meadow, bog, and pine barrens habitat that is “full of life in all seasons” and “attracts native bees, wasps, monarchs and other butterflies, as well as “migrating and resident birds, from hummingbirds and petite warblers to great blue herons, ospreys, and red-tailed hawks.
I was disappointed to see that even the 79-acre Missouri Botanical Garden, which has one of my favorite native plant finder resources, also has a holiday light display with over a million "dazzling lights" (dazzling is a common ad descriptive for these shows). At least their 70-acre native plant Shaw Nature Reserve isn't affected because it is not in the same place as the main botanical garden.
If we are serious about saving the insects, birds, and helping restore plant biodiversity, the excessive Disneyficiation of nature is going in the wrong direction. My husband tried to calm me down when I became overwhelmed and cranky by the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s headache-inducing, sensory overload of light and noise. He suggested I consider that they are tasked with finding ways to raise funds and this sold-out event helps them offer educational and conservation programs throughout the year. Bless his heart because to me this is like suggesting a dog rescue organization sell breeder dogs at the shelter to raise money to promote and support rescue pet adoptions. He was on point though because this is the first year the Georgia State Botanical Garden is adding a half-mile trail of twinkling lights and “dazzling displays” to their 313-acre gardens. (there's that word dazzling again!) Money from this event goes towards conservation programs including their native plant initiative to promote the use of native plants in the landscape. There is evidence artificial light influences plants and their interconnected relationship with the surrounding ecosystem. It seems botanical gardens promoting the conservation of plants would be aware of this!
To adapt to changing times there are two directions many botanical gardens seem to be heading.
As traditional garden groups die out, one direction many botanical gardens are going is to shift the focus towards educational events and activities around nature, sustainability, the environment, and native plants. It’s a hopeful trend to see exotic flower shows disappear. Maybe this means botanical gardens will ultimately move away from the emphasis on profiling exotic, non-native ornamentals and do more to promote and protect the native plants where the botanical garden is located. Many of the smaller botanical gardens like the free 10-acre Botanical Gardens at Asheville are already authentically profiling over 600 native plants with walking trails along woodlands, meadows, and streams. Some botanical gardens like the 60-acre Toledo Botanical Garden support community gardens, others offer education in foodscaping.
The Atlanta Botanical Garden is an example of the second direction many big city gardens are going. Over a dozen years ago they switched course and successfully rebranded to appeal to the general public as an attraction like a zoo or a museum, not to old school gardeners. Their programs have evolved to build on traditional draws such as sculpture exhibits and concerts by renovating the children’s garden to be more interactive and offering ongoing events and family activities, creating an edible garden with an outdoor kitchen to offer cooking classes, presentations, and wellness focused events, and building a 40 foot high, 600 foot long reverse suspension bridge through the Storza Woods, the only tree canopy-level walkway of its kind in the United States. All of these are educational and somewhat in harmony with a focus on the environment. Outsized interactive entertainment like the light show is in no way compatible with nature.
My daughter’s millennial fiancé who was listening empathetically to my rant about the lights mused at how cool it would be for botanical gardens to have some sort of smart glasses so people could walk through the gardens and "see" fantastical images on the trees and grounds through augmented reality. This idea doesn’t seem that far off. It still has little to do with the natural world and wouldn’t be my cup of tea, but an immersive experience like would align with the goal of coexisting with nature in at least some capacity and help with raising funds.
If novelty is what gets visitors my husband came up the great idea for a seasonal blackout tour with vision goggles for guidance. In the winter there could be strategically placed displays everywhere you look: gingerbread men climbing trees, a Santa and his sleigh on a roof, or elves doing elf on a shelf mischief throughout the garden. In the growing season there would be an even greater chance of catching a glimpse of real nature such as birds roosting in trees! It would be kind of like a nighttime scavenger hunt and the damage to the ecosystem would be minimal.
Botanical gardens seeking relevance in a world without fussy, ladies' garden clubs needs to double down protecting nature and rethink the trend of moving away from the natural world. Their connection to nature is what makes them unique. Using nature as a prop becomes old but nature itself never does. The more Botanical Gardens become another selfie-stop or instagram attraction, the more diminished their bully pulpit to educate and have a meaningful impact on the protection of our world becomes. No one looks to Disney for conservation tips, but botanical gardens are already in the plant conservation business and can successfully build on it.
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