I’ve missed the Perseids again. Again. I haven’t seen them in years, but there was a time when I saw the Perseid meteor shower every single year.
I’m thinking of this now because of several things I noticed in the heavens two nights ago. First, the moon came up red as a tomato. I knew it would. I had been watching for several evenings and since it rises a little later each day I figured it would come up just after sundown when the sky was still bright. I saw it peeking over the horizon and called for Mara to get out of bed and come have a look. This is strictly against protocol, so she was tickled pink getting to go out on the deck with me, where I held her up by her armpits so she could see through the trees east of the house to the spot on the horizon where the old cheeser was hoisting himself above the Cascades.
Then later on, when the moon was high and glaring white, I noticed that a fairly bright planet — my guess was Jupiter — was trailing behind it. Even if it had not been hideously bright, I would have known it was a planet because as a kid I learned to find and name all the First Magnitude stars in the northern hemisphere and that celestial map has never left me, so I can instantly spot the migrants. The stars all sweep across the night sky in fixed relationship to one another. If it’s summer, you’ll see a great triangle directly above you at 10pm or so formed by the stars Vega, Altair and Deneb. If you glance up on a winter night, it will be a large circle topped by Capella and including Sirius (Alpha Centauri), the closest star to our solar system. But the planets are migratory — they move, as do the sun and moon, among these stellar groupings and come into and out of alignment with the stars and each other in different ways at different times.
I peered through my Tasco 8×21 birding binoculars, which were just strong enough to satisfy me that there were no rings visible, so…not Saturn. Anyway, Saturn even at its closest is not so large in the sky. Mars would likewise be smaller, and would be redder. Venus is bright and large like that, but a little cooler looking and anyway never so far from the sun. Jupiter, then.
I think I grunted, because aside from these two headliners and the three First Magnitude stars of the Summer Triangle, I could see nothing but void, and that’s a shame, because I know there’s so much up there. Living in the city, our view of stars is occluded by the haze of light bouncing off of everything, what’s called “light pollution”. A city at night is not a dark place at all to those who have seen nature’s dark. The darkest place I ever was was a remote and stormswept island in the Aleutians called Unalaska. In that southwestern string of tundra-covered hills reaching out into the Bering Sea, the blackness on a cloudy night is disorienting, maddening, fear-inducing. Your eye wants to fall upon something, but it can’t. You feel a little nervous like you did when you were crouching in the living room coat closet in a game of hide and seek, but there’s no reassuring brush of wool sleeves against your cheek.
Once Angela and I were driving home from Leavenworth in my old truck, up over the mountains on a night in September. As we headed up the pass, the darkness outside the car was disturbed only by the occasional glaring headlights of cars coming down the pass towards us. The forest on either side of the highway formed a dark corridor, and I craned my neck to see upwards to where the blue of the night sky would be lighter by comparison to the forest. I was startled; the sky was a riot of silver-white light, the night absolutely clattering with stars. At that instant a fortuitous coincidence occured: we were passing a turnout and there were no cars coming down the hill toward us. So I pulled off the road at about 70 mph and brought the old buckboard to a heavy stop amid flying specks of dirt and turned the headlights off and shut off the engine so that even the dashboard would emit no light. Angela did not know what had happened and was in a flutter in the sudden silence and dark. “What is it! Why are you stopping!”
“Quick! Get out of the truck!” I said, jumping out and racing around to her side. “Look up!”
She looked up and she gasped. She made a real, honest-to-gosh gasping sound as air rushed into her lungs. “What is that?” She had never seen stars so numerous and bright before. There were stars in every single point of the sky. There was no place where there was not a star. The whole sky radiated like phosphorescence in the wake of a nocturnal oarstroke. And it wasn’t just the Milky Way coincidentally lining up with the gap in the trees. It was clear mountain air and the absence of light pollution. You could have read the New York Stock Exchange figures by that light.
When I was a kid, my neighborhood friends and I would “sleep out” as many nights in August as our parents would allow. Over the years the group included a number of kids, but usually it was Mark and Chris and me, sometimes my young brother Ben, too. We almost always slept in my front or back yard, though I recall a few nights over in Mark’s front yard and a few in the tree fort we built in his back yard, and even a time or two at Chris’ house at the far end of the street. We slept in sleeping bags under south Bellevue’s open sky, which at that time was still far enough away from Seattle’s light pollution that we could see myriad stars all night. We spread a big polyethylene tarp on the ground to keep moisture from the ground from seeping into our bags overnight and provisioned ourselves with comic books and Cragmont Grape Soda (what we in the west called “pop”) and, if one of our moms was in a generous mood, popcorn. Ribby from down the street turned us on to some sinister radio theater (almost certainly CBS Radio Mystery Theater), macabre little morality plays that we listened to on a little handheld transistor radio. My dad would always come out and check on us once, make a little small talk. I remember him telling us that the things that looked like slow-moving stars were satellites. I remember too some notion we had that the satellites that moved west to east across the sky were “ours”, while the ones that moved north to south belonged to “the Russians”, though now that I think about this it doesn’t seem very likely. Maybe we misunderstood my dad or maybe he was pulling our legs.
It was exciting and kind of spooky to see a satellite, because they didn’t move very fast, they just kept plodding until they were out of sight over the horizon, and it was strange to think that they were big machines we had put up there ourselves. But the real thrill was the Perseid meteor shower, what we called “shooting stars” or “falling stars”. We would lie wide-eyed on our backs in our big, square flannel-lined sleeping bags, which when rolled up were each the size of a refrigerator, and we’d watch for the quick bursts of light — terrifying for their absolute and utter lack of sound — meteorites entering and burning up in the earth’s atmosphere at speeds we could not even imagine, much less follow with our eyes. “There’s one!” one of us would shout, but by the time you rolled your eyeballs around or turned your head it was too late. You almost never saw one that someone else saw unless — and this happened at least once every year — a meteorite shot clean across the middle of the sky from one end to the other, like a knife slashing the dark curtain of night from a brightly lit room behind.
The expectancy was exhausting and invigorating both, and after a while my mates would quit talking and silently drop off lucidity’s edge into the clutch of Morpheus. I was always the last one awake — the obsessive compulsive, desperately seeking the blessings from on high. If I woke up early or stayed awake all night, I remember that moment of visually realizing that the sky was no longer absolutely black, that it had become a dark blue, and that the stars had lost their sharpness and some had even faded already. The transition was impossible to see happening; you could only recognize that it had happened and, moment by moment, that it had continued to happen. Our pillows were always wet in the morning from the dew, and usually there were muddy cat prints across them too.
For Christmas one year my Aunt Vivian gave me a book called How to Read the Night Sky by W. S. Kals (Doubleday, 1974). It was one of those rare gifts that come zinging into your life at exactly the right time. As a teenager I was already a stargazer, what with the sleeping out since I was a young kid and a Sears telescope my folks had bought me years earlier. Though undisciplined and lazy, I have always been smart, and somehow this book activated the self-learner in me. In clear, simple language with lots of illustrations and charts, this book organized the heavens for me and explained how to calculate sidereal time and figure latitude, among other things. In the back were charts that showed what constellations and asterisms the planets would be hanging out in for the next ten or twelve years (well into the ’80s!). But what grabbed me the most was the mnemonic devices by which the author made me memorize the names and locations of the northern hemisphere’s 13 First Magnitude stars. These are the stars that are the brightest.
You had to imagine a sailing ship preparing to set out to sea, and one of the seamen making the following report to the captain. “Captain, all de rigging seems properly polished”. This sentence contains aural reminders of the names Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon and Pollux (Castor’s twin). If you look up to the zenith of the night sky on a winter evening, Capella is the bright star there at the top. The others form a large circle going around to the right, clockwise. Rigel is the left foot of Orion (assuming he’s facing Earth). Sirius is low and bright and blue, part of the Dog constellation. Pollux, at about ten o’clock in this great circle, is at the head of the eponymous twin of Castor, whose capital star is close by but slightly dimmer.
Trouble is afloat, however, for the cook on board our imaginary ship, as he prepares the crew’s food with “regular spices and arsenic”. This phrase is the key to the next four stars, which are grouped in a low, broad-based double triangle that is visible during the spring: Regulus, Spica, Antares, and Arcturus. Antares means “the opponent of Ares (or Mars)” and you can remember this because it competes with the red planet in color. It is a slightly warmer looking star. If I remember correctly, Antares travels a very low arc in the sky and so is very seldom seen, especially if there is light pollution or smog or haze of any kind.
Finally, newspaper headlines telegraphically express the unremorseful plea of the cook, who has been accused of poisoning the crew after they all get sick: “Vegetable Alteration Denied”. The stars corresponding to this last phrase are Vega, Altair, and Deneb, the largest stars in the constellations Lyra (the lyre), Aquila (the eagle) and Cygnus (the swan). The large triangle these brighties form on summer nights is unmistakeable. Vega and Deneb delineate a side near the top of the sky, and the long point of the triangle ends at Altair, toward the south. This arrowhead swinging across the summer night represents the only First-Magnitude stars in the dome of the sky until Capella and Aldebaran arise many hours later. Jeff and I once were caught far from camp when night descended on our annual Ross Lake adventure, and lots of little cumulus clouds were scudding across the sky, densely packed together. But I only needed to see one thing — a First Magnitude star peeking through one of the momentary holes in the cover — and I was able to assure myself where south lay. At that time of year that single bright star could only have been Altair.
I have a memory earlier than all of these, of being in my dad’s arms at night in the back yard, on the brick patio where, later, he would build his shop. He was as tall as a tree and I sat on his left forearm as though it were a sturdy limb, looking up to where he pointed. I remember him telling me that there was a bear up there. I peered into the night but couldn’t see anything but stars and darkness. I imagined that two of those stars might be the bear’s sparkling eyes.
I have not stood outside at night in my old hometown for many years, but now that Bellevue is a city of high-rise buildings and 130,000 residents, I wonder whether those stars I used to study from my back yard would even be visible. I wonder how far out of town you’d have to go to see the bear up there.