“It’s not unusual at Deerlick to have your door knocked on at two in the morning, for your neighbor to come by and say hi, and talk for awhile. So that’s kind of cool,” said co-founder Chris Hetlage.
That’s because most residents of Deerlick Astronomy Village (DAV) in Taliaferro County, Ga., are wide awake at that hour, scanning the universe.
The village’s dark secret is — darkness. And that’s led to a dedicated “planned dark sky community,” founded in 2006.
Astronomy lovers loathe light. And to seriously pursue the hobby usually means driving hours away from the bright lights of any major city. So a few years ago, some dedicated sky gazers began their search for an undeveloped area, no more than a couple of hours from Atlanta, that would be pitch black for viewing the Eagle Nebula or Saturn’s rings.
A few years ago, Hetlage and DAV co-founder Donavan Conrad were driving around, guided by a map: The World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness, published by a nonprofit Italian Institute that studies light pollution.
“We were looking for an area of low growth, and low population,” said Hetlage. “Because with growth comes lights, and that’s not good for us,” he said.
Suddenly, there was a sign on the old timber road they were traveling. As in, a historical marker kind of sign — praising the work of Robert Grier, an amateur astronomer and mathematician (1780-1848) who was well known in the South for his celestial and weather writings. Grier’s Almanac is still in publication.
So Taliaferro (rhymes with Oliver) County it was. According to 2009 census numbers, the county has a population of just 1,812. And the median household income is $27,033. So a bunch of city folks coming in, buying property and paying taxes? That was just fine with county officials, who had no idea that dark skies could be such a selling point.
“It’s really a win-win. They bring us great revenues, and they don’t cost us anything,” said Herrman Milner, chairman of the Taliaferro County Planning Commission, and the mayor of Crawfordville.
That’s because most of the astronomers who have purchased lots in the 96-acre community don’t live there full time. So their kids don’t go to school there, and they don’t draw on many county services.
“The best we can tell, they love us here!” said Hetlage. He still works closely with the board of commissioners on property variances and other issues. DAV would like the county to adopt some light pollution ordinances.
While a lot of communities have odd covenants, from how many cars you can have in your driveway, to how high your grass can be, there’s one cardinal rule here: No white lights. Astronomers use red light flashlights when they need to move around.
For serious amateurs like Dan Llewellyn, the location is like a vacation home.
“You can buy the property, go out there on the weekend; there’s a handful of people who live there on a permanent basis,” said Llewellyn, who has a manufactured home on the site.
But observing the stars and planets in these pitch-black skies isn’t limited to being physically on site.
“A lot of people build remote observatories; they can get Internet control from wherever they are in the world, and look through their telescope,” said Llewellyn.
That’s especially important to residents from as far away as Jacksonville, Fla., and Detroit.
Both Llewellyn and Hetlage do more than just gaze at the skies; like many astronomers they are also accomplished photographers.
“The amateur community has produced the most unbelievable pictures,” said Llewellyn. “A lot of scientific people are using amateur images,” he said, including the British Astronomical Association.
But while astronomy can be a solitary hobby, the camaraderie is also important. That’s why DAV has a large common area called Grier’s Field. (It was named with the blessing of Robert Grier’s descendants.) The area has amenities such as RV hookups, restrooms, showers, nature trails and a warm-up shed for winter stargazing. Yearly individual memberships are $35, and family memberships are $50.
Working with the Atlanta Astronomy Club, Deerlick does outreach events for those developing an interest in sky-watching.
Hetlage says the Internet has been a double-edged sword when it comes to an appreciation of the cosmos. Anyone can surf through endless stunning photos of the universe, but there’s something lost if you never go outside and look up.
“One thing we do is reach out to the Boy Scouts. They can get their astronomy badges at our site,” said Hetlage.
Both DAV and the Atlanta Astronomy Club work to promote intelligent outdoor lighting.
“Just drive around Atlanta — there’s a lot of ‘erroneous lighting’ — it’s a waste of energy and it causes a lot of negative effects, not just for astronomers but for security situations as well,” said Hetlage.
Let there be dark!
Photos: Grier landmark; Chris Hetlage in his observatory; the Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as M51. All courtesy Chris Hetlage.