Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Wonder of the Night Sky

One of the benefits of living in the woods is seeing the night sky as it should be seen.

Last night, roused by Carrie’s abrupt pursuit of a pooka, we decided to get dressed and catch the late late show—the Orionid meteor shower. Aided by the combination of a brilliantly clear fall sky and a cooperatively absent moon, we enjoyed a rich and full star field from les chaises longue set right out in the driveway.

In years past we went to absurdly extreme lengths to enjoy a show like this. In mid-November, 2001, we woke everyone up after midnight, piled into the Aerostar and drove fifty-plus miles to the east flank of the Blue Ridge to see the Leonids. Aided by thermoses of hot apple cider and hot chocolate, plus a couple boxes of waxy chocolate-covered donuts, we lay under the icy night sky in awe.

Prior to that evening, my lifetime count of shooting stars was in the dozens, most from a single night at the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado. But the 2001 Leonids were astonishing—seeing our first shooters even while still driving on the interstate—and my recollection immediately afterwards was that at no time from when we arrived until dawn had lightened the sky was I not seeing a shooting star in one quadrant of the sky or another. My calculation (counting was simply impossible) was 3,000 shooting stars that night.

We followed up in 2002 by reserving a room at Skyland Lodge in Shenandoah National Park in order to be able to improve the driving/sleeping/viewing ratios. We watched from an east-facing overlook along Skyline Drive, lying on our backs on snow-covered stone walls until daybreak, then hurrying home along with all the crazy long-distance commuters to schools and jobs. It was a beautiful display, made more magical by the setting on the snowy mountains.

Last night was its own experience. The stillness was a thing of its own; other than the rustling of Schroeder’s peripatetic wanderings, our immediate surroundings were silent. I saw only one airplane in the time we lay under the icy black sky, and no satellites. (We realized that seeing satellites depends on the sun illuminating them, so after a certain point in the evening you just don’t see them anymore…).

At some point, Mary and I heard what was perhaps, the death scream of some small animal, followed by the call of an owl. More owl calls, the distant yipping of a fox, then the unmistakable howling of a coyote—or coyotes. The howls began an eruption of barking from every insomniac dog within earshot in Fauquier, Culpeper and Rappahannock counties, which slowly petered out due to an apparent lack of interest. Then it was still and silent again, until our resolve faltered and the chill night air chased us inside again.

Final count: A score of shooting stars—maybe two dozen all told. And for no more trouble than bundling up, walking into the yard, moving the lawn furniture and settling in. How great is that?

PS: The 2009 Leonids are expected to be above average this year—though not anything like 2001—peaking around 500 per hour November 17 around 21:30 UT (Okay, that's best if you're watching from Mongolia. But still. The moon is also cooperating then. Stay tuned!

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