Light pollution is getting worse by the year, and for anyone who loves the night sky, that means it's getting harder and harder to see the starry heavens in their full glory. By some estimates, 80 percent of the world's humans have never seen the Milky Way, one of nature's most spectacular wonders.
Sure, city dwellers can travel to dark sky areas around the U.S. Or, as one group of amateur astronomers from Atlanta did, you could simply create your own dark sky community. That's exactly how a 96-acre area called the Deerlick Astronomy Village (DAV) came to be.
Deerlick's location is what makes it so desirable for astronomy. Roughly two hours east of the glare of Atlanta, it's near Sharon, Georgia, a tiny town with a population of around 100.
There are no businesses there, and no commercial lighting. Residents call it the darkest town in the entire southeast corner of the country.
Deerlick is both a community and a staging area for astronomy events of all kinds. The lots for permanent housing – roughly two dozen in all — are already spoken for, so no one else can buy a plot. But the general public can pay a fee for star viewing parties and other activities. Additionally, there are also some leased lots, where people have built smaller permanent observatories that they operate remotely. A few of those are still available for sale.
The genesis of Deerlick was borne out of frustration. Not necessarily regarding light pollution, but rather, out of the exasperation of packing and unpacking delicate telescopes over and over again.
"The idea came from a group of us that were tired of hauling around 12-20 equipment cases for dark sky camping trips," emails Erik Benner, one of the site's original developers who is also a part-time resident. "Our thought was to build a community that was unique, and had offerings for folks that wanted a house, just an observatory, or a site with camping rules and facilities specifically for astronomers."
The group decided that the proposed site should be less than three hours from Atlanta; in an area with negative population growth; and one with very dark skies, he says. After a few months of checking out properties nearby, they bought and developed DAV.
Life at Deerlick Astronomy Village
About six to eight residents are full-time or seasonal, and roughly a dozen are weekenders who flee brighter areas for their comforting dark sky homes. Members of the public can soak up the starlight on Grier's Field, named after Robert Grier, an amateur astronomer who published Grier's Almanac and correctly predicted a solar eclipse in 1905. (The field was built on the land where the observations were made for the almanac.) You can enjoy primitive camping or bring your RV and use the site's electrical hookups. There are restrooms, a warm-up building and even a picnic pavilion. (Check the calendar for upcoming events.)
"I really enjoy it when the owners stop by and invite us to tour their observatories," emails Amy Little, who isn't a resident but has been visiting DAV since 2017. "They have taught me so much over the years." She considers Deerlick to be her second home, albeit one that requires a tent.
Both permanent residents and campers are subject to the same rules and regulations. Most of those rules, as you can imagine, involve light pollution. There are covenants in place that dictate the kind of lighting one can use on the premises, as well as the height of any structures – no one can erect a building that obstructs anyone else's view of the sky.
The site is wonderful for astronomy, says Benner and he loves it. "I started out with an RV and built a small cabin about six years ago. I am usually out there several weeks each month, depending on the weather."
But there are drawbacks when you're working on projects that have nothing to do astronomy. "A simple drive to Lowes and back is over two hours," he says.
Still, it's the social aspect that really draws many of its devotees.
"Deerlick has members that live in all the surrounding states, plus several members that drive over 800 miles every few months," says Benner. He says one of his favorite sightings was the 2019 lunar eclipse, "mainly because I was able to watch and image it with a bunch of friends."
Amy Little agrees with that sentiment.
"You can find me at DAV anytime the weather looks good and I never worry about who I will meet on the field," she says. "The membership fee [$35 for individuals and $50 for families annually] is very affordable. The bathrooms are always clean and stocked. There is plenty of power for everyone." And though there's usually no cellphone signal in the surrounding countryside, DAV is able to ensure that everyone has both cellphone and WiFi access there, she notes.
"This is the astronomer's playground," says Little. "Big wide views, dark skies, and a whippoorwill singing during the night. I wish there were more locations like this protecting the night sky. Progress is inevitable, but we also should appreciate the beauty of an unpolluted night sky."