Zodiacal light

And now for something totally different. I have a tendency to accumulate small and obscure interests. I don’t talk a lot about them, since I have long since learned that few people are interested in going in depth on things like Wagner’s Ring Cycle and it’s mythical connections to Tolkien. If you try, you can get me going on some of these at a party, when we have parties again.

Anyway, one of my small obsessions is solar phenomenon. At least, specific solar phenomenon. For the last five or so years I’ve been totally obsessed with the Carrington Event, a Coronal Mass Ejection at the beginning of the industrial age that lit up and partially destroyed the telegraph wires (as well as painting skies across the world with vibrant auroras). I sort of fail to understand why this isn’t a bigger deal. It’s one of the most likely civilization disrupting events (right next to, uh, pandemics). Events of that size hit earth every couple hundred years, depending on a solar cycle much more complex than I realized. (We’re in solar cycle 25 right now, although it seems clear there is also a meta-cycle that lasts longer than our scientific observations and is hard to map to any permanent stuff here on earth.)

Anyway, I decided this summer to dig deeper into the aurora and the coronal mass ejection (and also Northwest Lookout towers) and read this great book called “The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began” by Stuart Clark. Towards the end of it, after the unseemly death of the title character (Clark seemed to hate telling that part, but dutifully dished up the promised salaciousness), you get some lovelorn English gents wandering to Egypt with the expected malaria, ill health, and bad neighborliness. They go to investigate the Zodiacal light. Given my obsession with all the other weird phenomenon, I couldn’t believe I had missed one. The Zodiacal lights are a pyramid shaped column of light seen at dawn and dusk roughly between the tropics. And those ill-fated Englishmen (did they die of dysentery/malaria? I don’t recall, but it seems right) couldn’t figure it out. In fact, the mystery stretched down to my reading of the book.

There was a pyramid of light in the sky, and no one knew why.

Until last week.

We launched a probe, Juno, a decade ago. And with it’s vast solar panels, it discovered something in space – a vast section of dust fiercely pinged and pitted the light-catchers. And that dust lined up perfectly with both the trajectory of Mars, and the Zodiacal lights. That pillar in the sky? Mars dust. So cool. Of course, in the manner of all scientific discoveries the answer to one question simply raises another: how did all that dust get into space in the first place? Interesting, but not quite as cool as the mysterious pillar of light in the sky.

Anyway, Zodiacal light has been on my mind this week, so I decided to make this, ahem, artist’s rendition of it. It’s SO CLOSE to what I wanted, without quite being perfect. Ah, the life of a person attempting to make art. Anyway, this picture is definitely an exaggeration. But I got these pearlescent watercolors, and they seemed just right for this dim and misty light. And pyramids are fun. If I’d had skills I would’ve added a camel. But I don’t have skills. I did add two zodiacal signs to either side of the pillar – can you spot or identify them?

What bizarre stuff are you interested in?

Actual image of the zodiacal light

I saw a shooting star

The stars over Mt. Rainier

Saturday night, I saw a shooting star.

That may not sound significant or momentous to you. Perhaps you live in a place where you can see stars in the night sky — more than the 20 or so that outshine the ambient light of cities. Perhaps you have ample opportunity, on your drives home, to pull over and admire a particularly brilliant night. Perhaps you can’t exactly recall the last time you saw a shooting star — you’re sure you have, sometime — but it doesn’t matter because astronomical events just aren’t that important to you.

These may be some of the ways you and I are different, then.

Ten years, now, I have lived in places where you could not see shooting stars. For ten years, I have lived within a ten mile radius of the City of Boston, with the orange omnipresent glow that ranges, with the humidity, between present and overwhelming. Ten years, the same feeble 20 stars have been my rare nightly companions. For nearly half that time, approaching five years now, I have been tethered to my home at night. It’s not entirely safe to walk alone in the dark, although I do so. And almost always, one of us (my husband or I) must be at home to listen for the late night cries of our children. I could not see the stars even if they were clear, because I cannot look.

Before that ten years, the stars were very much a part of my life. New London, Connecticut has lights. Certainly. But many fewer and weaker and further down the hill. I used to love walking around Harkness Green in the evenings – from the soft first evenings of September through the bitter colds of February and back to the noisy darkness of May. Sometimes alone, often with friends, I would walk: South overlooking the estuary of the Thames, West towards Winged Victory and the party noises emanating from Freeman, North facing Harkness Chapel then East across the new sun dial. My eyes ranged out and up. It was dark there (with one particular light that always seemed to either go on or off as we approached). The stars were present in greater numbers. For one glorious year, the Hale-Bopp comet hung directly over Knowlton, where young girls had danced with Coast Guard cadets in long-gone times.

My love of the skies had not started with college, though. Even before that, I lived high in the mountains. Growing up, I could see the Milky Way spread out across the sky. I didn’t know that for the urban world it was an unthought-of myth. I remember one particular night when I was driving home, late, and the astonishing brilliance of a moonless starry sky was so incredibly distracting that I pulled over and just looked until I was thoroughly chilled. I used to go to the graveyard — a flat, long horizoned space with no lights — to watch the stars in the dark of the night. I recall one rather ominous occasion when a herd of elk traveled across the clearing while I was there. I rarely brought a flashlight, and the large thumping shapes were frightening in the dark of the cemetery.

In all my sky-gazing youth, the most precious moments were the shooting stars. Have you ever seen one? Do you remember it? My passion for them started during a summer camp. We’d gotten rained out from our backpacking trip, and were sleeping under the stars in fields just to the north of Mt. Rainier. It was during the Perseid meteor shower, although I didn’t know that at the time. It was a super clear, high, moonless night and the stars fell nearly every minute. I loved them. I loved the surprise gift – the reward of watching and waiting with alertness. They were thrilling. Since then I’ve considered meteors to be gifts, benedictions, blessings from a loving creator.

I do not know exactly how long it’s been since I last saw a shooting star. More than three years, almost certainly. Perhaps more than five. I do make visits to places where stars can be seen, but often it’s cloudy that particular night, or I cannot leave my sleeping babes, or the moon steals the stars from my sight. But on Saturday, after all my boys had gone to bed, I crept away from the dying embers of my New Hampshire campfire and walked in darkness to a small clearing near the lake where the loons mournfully cried. I laid on my back in the grass on a warm summer’s evening, marveling at how many more star there were than even my memories portrayed, still knowing I was seeing only a portion. And just before I stood to return, there across the sky sped a streak of light, gone before my eyes could turn fully to take it in. A shooting star. A blessing and a benediction. And I returned with joy to my family.