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Leonid Shower

November 23, 2001

While watching the Leonid meteor shower in the wee hours Sunday morning, I was treated to three of my pet peeves — loud cars, barking dogs, and unshielded “security” lights. Ah, the city that never sleeps.

You’ve probably seen the satellite photo of the U.S. at night, in which the shape of the U.S. is manifest through all the lights of the cities and towns. Salida is easily located.

The photo is an embarassment, really. All that light is wasted energy, and resources, and thus wealth, beaming back into space. Of course, we still have dark skies here, if less so than a decade ago.

The rude light and unnecessary noises of man and his best friend took the edge off my meteor viewing at first and set me to thinking that man is basically a pox upon the Earth. However, my family likely thought the same of me as I repeatedly rattled my Thermos of hot chocolate.

I reflected on how we try with our religions, cultures, arts, and sciences to make things better, but too often we prove unable to do more than think of our next moment’s desires.

Of course, this celestial event beyond all human scale defeated me. The meteor shower was so wonderful, immense, inevitable, irreversible, and momentous that it pressed peace upon me.

There was nothing to do, after the hot chocolate was gone, but watch and be delighted. One couldn’t see the whole thing at once. We watched for over an hour facing east, looking side to side. I went back out after 4:00 and was amazed at the view to the west over Shavano. It was like rain.

You might question whether a meteor shower qualifies as momentous. However, it was of some consequence. A lot of people in our valley watched it. It was an extraordinary event that invited us out of our self-centered lives. Everything about it was special: the time of day, the pace of it, the perspective of looking up.

Regular skywatching can be as affecting. One summer, I made a point of going outside every night to wait for a shooting star before going to bed. It was a peaceful time. The act of waiting patiently is a corrective measure.

We were blessed Sunday by fortunate timing — the new moon, the peak event over our hemisphere, the clear night skies. But regularly, there are many astronomical features and events to enjoy. “Astronomy” magazine chronicles these monthly, and the library has skywatching guides such as the “National Audubon Society field guide to the night sky,” “Turn left at Orion,” and “The backyard astronomer’s guide.”

If the meteors have piqued your interest, you might check these out.

The library also has a video lecture series on astronomy, plus an assortment of related books. The enjoyment of astronomy is much enhanced by education. The visceral response to the majesty of the night sky is reason enough to watch, but would you ever have explained the Leonid meteors on your own?

Take help when it’s there. Our society’s knowledge is a deep, rich store accumulated from thousands of years and billions of people. I thought of one of those people Sunday night: a decade ago there was a man in Buena Vista who manufactured special optics for astronomers.

I’m not sure if he’s still here — he had considered leaving the valley after the correctional facility put up those enormous “security” lights — but I thought, “There’s a career your guidance counselor never told you about.”


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