Monday, August 09, 2010

The Perseids—Potential for A Metaphor

Here is today's column in Small Town Newspaper:

This coming Friday morning, in the hours between midnight and dawn, the Perseid meteor shower will reach its peak, and I intend to be a witness if I have to turn the sky inside out to do it. The Perseid may not be the most spectacular meteor shower of the year, but it’s one of the most regular, and it offers us a chance to be amazed by nature.

NASA experts predict we may see as many as 40 to 60 meteors per hour. And they suggest choosing a viewing spot with few ground lights—if you can see the Little Dipper, you’ll be able to see meteors, they say.

The Perseid shower is so named because it appears to emanate from the constellation Perseus, but it’s actually debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle’s dust cloud. Every year about this time, Earth passes through this cloud, and our gravity sucks out tiny particles. The bits of debris hurtle toward the Earth at thousands of miles per hour, smash into our atmosphere and burst into flames, shooting through the sky as they disentigrate.

For such a violent series of events with collision and fire and destruction, meteor showers can put on a graceful and impressive show, the kind that elicit “oohs” and “aahs” from spectators as much as any man-made fireworks display. They can excite us with the illusion of danger, and at the same time comfort us with the knowledge that all will be well.

There was a time when the average person was less scientifically aware, and the sight of a meteor shower sparked panic and End Times speculation. Unaware of what they were actually seeing, people who witnessed the burning of cloud dust took the “shooting stars” as apocalyptic, and instead of being amazed, they were fearful. The Leonid shower of 1833, much more like a storm than a shower with thousands of meteors appearing in one night, terrified people all over North America.

A young Abraham Lincoln was awake and watching that night, but unlike his neighbors, he kept a level head. As Walt Whitman later described the experience, Lincoln was awakened by his landlord the night of the Leonid shower, and the man declared as he banged on the bedroom door, “Arise, Abraham, the day of judgment has come!” Lincoln ran to the window and saw an overwhelming number of meteors streaking over head, but as others declared the sky to be falling, he noticed the constellations behind the meteors were still in place, rock solid and steady as ever.

Years later when the Civil War tested the strength of the Union, business men asked Lincoln if the Union would survive. The president recounted the night of the meteor shower and the comfort he felt when realizing the stars were still in the sky, and he used his experience as a metaphor to reassure his fellow citizens. The sky wasn’t falling. It was simply shaking off some dust, so to speak; and the Union would stand despite its frightful and relatively brief trials.

I’ve tried to witness meteor showers before, setting the alarm for a wee hour, bundling up against the cold and leaning back in a lawn chair with an optimistic gaze toward the dark sky. More often than not, I have been disappointed, either by thick cloud cover or a hyped up shower with little to show for its news coverage. But this time around, I am hopeful. This time around, I want a metaphor.

I expect to look up at familiar and fixed constellations and planets and be surprised by unpredictable streaks of light. I expect to look up at the same stars that guided ancient sailors and puzzled ancient astronomers and see ancient dust flash right in front of my 21st-century eyes. I expect, like Abraham Lincoln, to be dazzled by the falling of space particles but comforted by the steadiness of the same constellations I’ve known since childhood.

Sitting underneath the permanent backdrop of those constellations and watching the violent burning of the Perseid meteors might offer us a gentle reminder that trouble is only temporary. Our sky is not falling, our Union will stand and even what seems like world-ending calamity can be spectacular.


dive said...

Hoorah for Lincoln and common sense.
What an inspiring piece, Robyn.
I hope you get clear skies later this week and a spectacular show.

MmeBenaut said...

We always make a wish when we see a "falling star"; just imagine how many thousands of wishes you might be able to make during the meteor shower.
I too take comfort from the familiar constellations. We're lucky here that we are far from the city lights and can see the stars clearly.

Madame DeFarge said...

Unfortunately all very cloudy over here, but this post reminds me why I love gazing up at the stars at night.