Hunched over the telescope, I worked on a pencil sketch of Saturn. To ease a stiffening neck, I straightened in the chair and tilted my head back to the sky. At that instant a brilliant fireball meteor flashed across the constellation Hercules — intense blue-green, as bright as planet Venus, leaving a luminous trail.
I've schooled myself to count "one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two …" whenever I see a fireball, so I noted that after three seconds — a long time for a shooting star — its color blazed into orange and the meteor exploded (silently) into four or five fragments that fanned out in a 90-degree arc, each one leaving a faint yellow track for about a second. It's called a bolide ("bowl-eyed"), and I was dazzled.
The bolide — so bright and dynamic — seemed "right there," no higher than an airplane level. But any meteor you see is 50 to 120 miles away. The open-ended sky, stretching from the tip of your nose to eternity — is difficult to fathom, literally. But it's enchanting to try.
When I was 13 my friend John received an inexpensive reflecting telescope for his birthday — essentially a toy. The first clear night he invited me next door to look at the moon. He bent to the eyepiece and I saw him stiffen. "Wow!"
"Let me see!"
The craters, mountains and "seas" were "right there," more vivid than any picture of the lunar surface I'd ever seen. No other eye, no camera, no photographic emulsion mediated the image. Astronomer Robert Burnham wrote, "The amateur astronomer has access at all times to the original objects of study … as much as do the great observatories of the world." The magnified moon was like a spotlight to the brain. Beautiful, yes, but even more affecting was the signature of the light, a sense of being tethered to the moon. As John edged in for a second look, I made two-footed hops, excited and eager to get back to the eyepiece — a lunatic, awakened by moon gleam.
In August 1994 I was on a crew working a major forest fire in north-central Idaho. It was exhausting labor, and by the end shift we were primed for a hot supper and the snug cocoons of our sleeping bags. But at nightfall I was distracted. Our camp was in a mountain meadow at 6,500 feet elevation. The murkiest layer of our planet's atmosphere puddled far below. The Milky Way was luxuriant, like a sun-drenched cloud. Individual stars were flinty points of brilliance. Each night I strolled beyond the pool of lantern light into the radiance of the galaxy.
One evening I was trailed by Y.T., a combat-hardened Vietnam veteran who had related horrifying tales about the war. He was minus a kneecap that had been shot away in a firefight. Y.T. had seen and comprehended much, but not the night sky, not like this. He asked what I was looking at. I pointed. There was the Andromeda Galaxy, over 2 million light years distant, but it's oval shape apparent to the naked eye. I mentioned that due to the finite velocity of light, the image we were seeing was 2 million years old.
There was Polaris, the north star. It's height above the horizon in degrees indicated our latitude. I explained the nature of the Earth's rotation. There, just rising over a mountain peak was the star cluster Pleiades — the Seven Sisters — a stunning shoal of sapphires. And dominating all, the Milky Way itself, an effulgent tide of stardust and suns.
I explained it was the disk of our own spiral galaxy, spread across a hundred thousand light years from the center that we could see before us in the constellation Sagittarius. And when we gazed in the other direction, out of our galaxy toward Andromeda, we were peering into the chasm of intergalactic space at another spiral even bigger than our own.
Y.T. slowly sank into the frosty grass, favoring the leg without a kneecap. He laid back and swept his eyes from horizon to horizon.
"But …" he whispered, "but …" A long pause. "Wow."
His face, despite its weathered creases, was childlike. He blinked and gazed. His lips parted and he mouthed a second, silent "wow."
He was seized by revelation, warmed by astronomical happiness — a joy in the presence of celestial splendor; reverence at the altar of sheer magnitude; wonder at locating oneself in a cosmic perspective. Best of all, it's a brief passage beyond that self.
We are needy, self-absorbed biological creatures whose fundamental instincts are for survival and propagation. Any time we can transcend the tyranny of our genes is precious, and the night sky is a portal to transcendence. The stars say "get real," notice the scope of the universe. Our everyday concerns are not trivial, but assign them a cosmic dimension — for a little while at least. We are infinitesimal motes, yet our minds can encompass the galaxy and imagine the universe beyond.
I've not seen Y.T. again, but a few months after our tour of duty I received a letter. He recalled our night stroll and said he was now learning the constellations with his kids. He wrote, "It was a great gift you gave me, man."
During the past year of uncertainty and fear — pummeled by pandemic and politics — I often found solace in the night sky, blessed with the opulent darkness of the North Woods. I felt sorry for anyone cooped up in a metropolis, caged within the murky toxicity of artificial light. I relished the loveliness and repeatedly reconnected with the heavenly perspective: This too shall pass.
The pandemic year, while special, was a mere reminder that we always require solace, and of course it need not be astronomy. Any number of passions and pursuits will suffice.
In his novel "The Once and Future King," T.H. White channels a famous wizard: " 'The best thing for being sad,' replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, 'is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.' "
The implicit caveat is that whatever you seek to know should have tangible connections to reality. In our era of internet idiocies vigilance is paramount, but there still exists a plain route to whatever truth we humans can discern.
And like any great hunt, the chase should bring joy. If your learning doesn't generate some gladness and contentment, you may be on the wrong track.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is author of "Ghosts of the Fireground" and other books.