Time Traveling through the Perseid Shower
©Linda Watanabe McFerrin
It’s August; the Perseid Shower is just about due, and I am time traveling again.
Ever since humans first looked up and beheld the night sky, we have used the stars to orient ourselves both physically and psychologically. The stars were moving, we used to think, around the earth; but it is we who are traveling, spinning–wildly in the context of stellar time. The stars and the silence of deep space seem to mock us with infinity. It’s as if they hold a secret, something beyond our clumsy chronological reckonings, the key to past and future and the ultimate sense of place.
I was pondering this on a near moonless night as I counted shooting stars from my seat on the bumpy fire trail that cuts through Leona Heights Regional Open Space in the hills of Oakland, California. Above me the meteors flashed blue-white and bright on their 90,000 mile-per-hour collision course with earth’s atmosphere, where they vaporize like bugs on a windshield in a splatter of plasmic brilliance. These are the Perseids, the detritus of periodic comet Swift-Tuttle, a dirty snowball of ice and dust trapped in an orbit around our sun, which delivers it to our portion of the solar system every one hundred and twenty years. Our planetary path drives us through the lingering cloud of sand particle-sized debris once every year in late July and the middle of August. Written records of this intersection date all the way back to 36 AD. Along with the Leonids in November and the Geminids in December, the Perseid Shower is one of the year’s most visible astronomical spectacles, and on this night I had dragged my groggy family—husband, Lawrence, and our constant canine companion, Braveheart—out in the hours just after midnight to witness the cosmic fireworks.
I’d promised the stellar equivalent of a Fourth of July display. I can’t help smiling when I think of that comparison. Our fiery, man-made pyrotechnics are so spectacular that the slow progress of this meteor shower would exasperate most folk. They say you can pick out up to 80 meteors an hour—chronicles from previous years place that number even higher—but we are lucky if we see ten or eleven. Part of this is because of the condominium complex over the hill and just around the bend. To really get a good view of celestial bodies and phenomena like meteor showers and stars we’d have to escape the pollution of artificial light. And use a telescope. This is not surprising, since the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is four light years (or 24 trillion miles) away. Still, there are approximately 5000 stars visible to the naked eye and given the right conditions, we could see as many as 2500 from any single point on earth at any single time. Unfortunately, these were not the right conditions and from our vantage point we were only able to see the biggest and the brightest, not the nearest.
At this point, my companions were a little grumpy. I couldn’t blame them. We humans, and our canine pals, are not designed for night. Human beings are diurnal, functioning best in the full light of day. We occupy the day shift on a planet where the staggered sleep and waking cycles—many of them based on predator–prey relationships—of the plant and animal population have been orchestrated to ensure survival. Some creatures, like deer, rabbits, coyotes, porcupines and bats are crepuscular, having evolved to forage in a twilit world; while others like skunks, foxes, bobcats, raccoons and mountain lions come out at night. We have dark myths about folk who prefer a roofless night far from the comforts of simulated sunlight; often assigning them the shapes of animals associated with crepuscular and nocturnal realms.
Yet, something about the night has always intrigued humanity and drawn us into it. Maybe it’s simply the thrill of trespass, the pleasure of ranging about at a time for which we’re not genetically engineered. Maybe it’s the sensuality of darkness. Without our vision, we are at the mercy of our other senses, which come alive to fill the breach. Or, maybe it’s the possibility of solitude that makes nighttime so alluring, the opportunity to rub shoulders with a whole new cast of characters, to visit a dusky world where we can move about as strangers.
Whatever the appeal, it’s surprisingly widespread. To me, there’s nothing more exhilarating than walking silently along a path grown fuzzy with shadow. I look up at the pinpricks of light that dot the inky sky and impose whatever order I can. I can find Perseus and Leo and Gemini, the constellations from which those yearly meteor showers appear to radiate. I do think that each and every one of us has a different relationship with the stars, one cobbled together from bits of cultural and personal mythology, science and speculation and it’s just this mystery that makes the night sky so enthralling. It’s like a vast enigma waiting to be deciphered, an important map, in bright relief, for which we don’t yet have the key. Perhaps the direction that the stars point isn’t north or south or east or west at all, but out and away. Perhaps they chart a clear path to the point where time begins and ends, flashing the signals that will guide us trillions of miles on a migration that will take us, paradoxically, beyond ourselves and to our very center.
And that’s about as far out as I ever get. Generally something—a rustle in the nearby brush, Braaveheart’s low growl, my biological clock insisting this is no time to be up brings me back. That’s when I take a last look at the night sky, where my mind has been roaming, and force myself to look away, gather up my family, terra-bound, and turn, a bit reluctantly, back into an earthling.
—Linda Watanabe McFerrin
This year the Perseid Shower will take place August 12th and 13th. Look for the best display in the early morning hours, just after midnight.
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