Reaching its peak before dawn on the morning of August 12th, the Perseid Meteor Shower orchestrates time, distance, speed, and light for our entertainment…and it happens silently and free for us to see. When you make the early-morning effort to see it, you’ll lose all sense of feeling less-than-special or forgotten-by-the-world: you get to witness the glowing, streaking flashes of thousand-year-old dust as it burns up entering our atmosphere at 130,000 mph. Soundless, instantaneous streaks of spacerock vaporizing before your eyes. This year promises a bigger show than normal because Jupiter’s gravity changed the course of dust that has hurtled through space since the year 1079…yes, a comet (Swift-Tuttle) orbits the sun every 133 years to a furthest point about 4.75 trillion miles away and leaves a dust trail that crashes into our sky once every year. All this celestial enormity—plus some serendipitous help from Jupiter—combines for an especially dazzling lightshow in the sky this year…if you’ll make the early-morning effort to see it.
I’ve made that effort before and will again this year. In August 2013, I went to the beach at about 2 a.m.—I was the only person in sight. I must admit that it can be spooky on the beach in the dark, but the Milky Way was as plain as I hoped for and as soon as I climbed the dunes onto the beach, an orange ball of light shot through the sky directly in front of me…ZOOM! I had an immediate sense that it would be a good night. About 100 yards from the water, I lay in the sand to look up. For the next hour I was entertained by bright meteors that interrupted a constant flurry of things that I couldn’t quite define…little flashes and streaks…were they birds in the dark or flecks in my eye or tiny short-lived meteors… I couldn’t tell. I thought of a line in Eliot’s “Four Quartets” that describes “a movement of darkness on darkness”…that’s how the haze of movement seemed. I lay there for an hour counting 16 no-doubt-about-it meteors before the dampness got to me. Lying there, listening to the constancy of surf, seeing the Milky Way, spotting the silent streaks of light, watching the smear of the Pleiades climb the dawning sky, I got a very mystical sense that added to the spookiness. I’d read a line somewhere about being “privy to the mind of God,” and I felt that while I was lying there.
On the next night I returned to the beach with my daughter and two reclining beach chairs. A broken front of clouds drifted over, but lots of sky was visible and we saw dozens of no-doubt-about-it meteors: one even left a streak that took a few added instants to fade. After we’d both aaahhhh’ed our amazement, she said, “What does it mean, what does it mean?” in imitation of Skeleton Jack from Nightmare Before Christmas…I suspected that she was enjoying the same mystical sense of the event. I asked her if she saw the other constant flurry of undefined movement and she said, “Yes.” We stayed for an hour and a half before my wife and son came wandering down to join us. We counted a total of 40 bright meteors that night. By 4 a.m., as dependable as the heavens are, the Pleiades were well up, Taurus was plain above the quickening horizon, and even Orion was starting to show before the night ended.
It had been an unexpected family event, there that night on the beach under a black sky streaked instantly with light that went instantly dark again; the four of us walked in wonder back to the house to what sleep we could find before the sun rose.