Me and the Leonids


I watched the Leonids peak last night.

Since I live in Tucson that means I got up at about 2:30 AM, threw on a couple pair of sweatpants, a few layers of sweatshirts and a jacket. It means I then donned earmuffs and ventured out into the wilds of the night. You might be chuckling at my layering, but it does get nippy here in Tucson and despite my years of living in much colder climes I am a delicate flower. I like my ears warm, thank you very much. Lisa, being sane, did not get up. She stayed warm, snuggled comfortably under the covers.

We live on a cul-de-sac, or what I called a circle when I was a kid (we lived on a different cul-de-sac back then). I went out the front door and into the middle of the circle, then I looked up. It took me only a moment to realize I needed two things. First, a chair, and second, my binoculars. So I went back in to grab my binoculars. On the return trip, I dragged one of the lawn chairs we have on our front patio area along with me, eventually to plop my behind down once again right there in the middle of the circle.

Luckily there is no traffic at three in the morning around here. I felt pretty safe.

I also felt a series of strange things.

There I was, sitting in the middle of the street in what was supposed to be the darkness, but in reality was so moon-bright I could clearly see everything around me. The tones were all muted, blues and blacks, but everything was crystal clear. The air here is dry. It makes everything crisper. There was no wind. I mean, none. Zero. So the chill of the air just settled over me, coating me like an electric blanket stuck on reverse. The heat radiated away from me in all directions. The concrete was hard below my feet. The desert wash that lines the edge of the circle behind me was still and absolutely silent. Everything was clean and fresh. It smelled like rocks.

To my east, the ridge of the Catalina Mountains were vague and distant dark lines. Above me the sky was its most brilliant cloudless self that you can imagine.

Being born in the Kennedy years, I’ve grown up in an age when space was a big deal. I suppose that’s something different from most generations. When I was a boy, I remember being interested in the sky and the stars, but sometimes more as a passing thing than it should have been. Yeah, science, cool. Let’s play ball. As a younger kid I remember Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, but what I remember most was the ruckus that happened in our back yard later that night. I remember Apollo 13. I knew about Sputnik, and satellites, and spy planes. Star Trek only came in one flavor back then, and I remember watching it. What I’m saying is that the idea of people in space has always there for me. And, of course, I am a science fiction writer. While I’m not a deeply knowledgeable amateur astronomer, I love the base idea of the stars. I can pick out constellations, and I do understand something about comets and asteroids and where we are in the galaxies and all that–but I ‘m really just a space nerd, not a fully learned amateur astronomer. I am, however, enthralled by the metaphors that come with stars. I love what they mean.

Sitting there, I used my binoculars to look at Mizar and Alcor, the double star in the handle of the big dipper in Ursa Major. I looked at the Crab Nebula in Orion’s belt. I saw various Messier objects—those gauzy collections of stars or nebula or whatever that were categorized by a French Astronomer a long time ago (that’s another thing I love about astronomy—in a sign of human solidarity, every culture known to us has participated in astronomy). I thought about the talk a UA professor had just given our Astronomy club earlier tonight. He said we should think of the meteors we see tonight as being made of material that is billions of years old.

Which it is. A meteor is material that is billions of years old, and that hitched a ride on a comet to get here—to eventually burn itself up in the atmosphere above us, adding that material to the ecosystem of the planet we call home.

How freaking wild is that?

After sitting there alone in the middle of the circle for some time, under the dark canopy of the moon-lit night, in the silence that was absolute, I felt that remarkable thing that you can feel sometimes. I felt the size of the universe. Or at least I felt the expanse of it. The endless nature of space as we know it. The idea of infinity seemed suddenly more palatable.

Eventually, I got cold enough and tired enough that I packed it in and went back into the house, putting the chair back and storing my binoculars. It took me a little bit to get back to sleep, but I did. It was a good sleep. This morning, I’m writing this in a vain attempt to recapture that feeling of sitting out on my perch of the universe and taking it all in, but finding that this process is like trying to fully recall that moment when you first saw your wife or your daughter. You recall the idea of the feeling. You recall the flavor and the sense of it. But there is nothing you can do to replace that immediacy of actually being there.

Still, it’s good.

And, yes, I saw meteors, too. Some, anyway. To be honest, the shower itself wasn’t massive from where I sat. There were a few interesting streaks and several interesting flashes. Yes, beautiful. Very cool, each and every one.

But as I sit here this morning, the thing I remember most about my night with the Leonids is not the meteors.

Instead, I remember that at one point, as the stars were telling their stories and the few meteors were shaking their contrails, that out in the desert wash a bird spoke up with a small series of chirps. Normally, this wouldn’t have been much to notice, but against this backdrop of amazing nighttime and utter, absolute silence, on this evening I could hear every nuance in its song. They were plaintive notes. Simple sounds of existence. There are things that are worth a little pain, so I took off my earmuffs and listened to it.

It sounded amazing.

Given how I feel about so many things going on around me right now, this bird’s singing grabbed my heart. It felt important.

So, this morning, instead of meteors, what I remember most of my evening with the Leonids is the startling voice of that bird.

A single, solitary creature, singing away in the middle of a vast darkness.

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  1. I went out at 3:00am but I wake up every night at that time anyway… Yeah, it was cold so I didn’t stay as long as you did but, your right, space is “awe” inspiring…Didn’t see a thing!!
    Didn’t stay as long but it “swayed” me to feature Dr. Don McCarthy on my monthly “Tipster”
    about, comets and meteorites, etc. Can science and religion really get together? See you on December 15!

  2. Did you happen to hear a little dog barking??? That was Chico, he thought you were a Havelina…ha,ha!!

  3. While you were out having a private moment with the universe, I was sleeping away part of my life. I am so glad you shared that moment with us. It was beautifully told and made to remind us to tune in more to our surroundings. Thank you.

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