The Stars Above

Perseid Meteor Shower

A collective wail of oohs and ahhs erupted behind my back as I stood on a hill in the dark last Thursday night near my country property in Thornbury, Ontario. A star had just streaked by, and everyone around me was terribly excited. No, it wasn’t Angelina Jolie in the buff. And actually, even if it had been, I doubt this crowd would have cared.

With a few exceptions (among them me and others from the community who had gathered that night for a little star gazing courtesy the L.E. Shore Memorial Library in the Town of Blue Mountains) the squealers were all members of the Royal Astrological Society of Canada. They were on a hill in the dark last Thursday night to ogle instead the stars that twinkle far above our heads, often beyond our ken.

These amateur astronomers had with them huge honking telescopes with which to gaze at the real stars that were their heart’s desire. Some had them trained early in the evening on Venus, rising coyly in the dusky sky to show off her sparkling raiment made of star fire.

As the sky darkened, other pinpoints of light succeeded in elbowing Venus aside for our attention.

One hoodie-wearing RASC member whom I could still make out in the thickening darkness excitedly told me that one that was then grabbing his attention was a double star. I saw it with the naked eye as a single. He asked me if I wanted to look at it through his lens. I did. And there it was. The twin star known as Albireo.

But that wasn’t what all the fuss was about.

The bigger star show was yet to come, and it belonged to the Perseid meteor shower said that night to rain a shower of starlight onto mortal heads. A mini lecture held back at the library in advance of the excursion emphasized that Perseid was a rare occurrence, happening every 132 years or so. We were all primed to face the explosion head-on. But first we had to wait until the night sky took on the appearance of black velvet in order to see it. There were Muskoka chairs set out on the lawn near the Observatory to make the waiting more comfortable. I instead took my position up against my parked van, preferring to commune with the stars in private.  I gazed upwards in the direction of the Milky Way and watched and waited, waited and watched, cicada singing around me like a Greek chorus.

The experience felt not unlike whale watching, which I had done summers before with my husband in Quebec. I knew nature’s behemoths were out there, but didn’t know when they would chance to slice through the darkness to reveal their glory.

I heard a few more oohs and ahhs ahead of me, proof that the meteors were making their brilliant appearance, just not in the patch of sky I was watching. I wondered if I’d go home disappointed.

But suddenly, without warning, a meteor exploded before my eyes, leaving a trail of stardust in its wake. Another soon followed, and then another. It was like watching a fireworks display, except for one thing. Save for the people exclaiming around me, all this cosmic dynamiting was taking place in strictest silence. The heavens were mute, speaking only through the visual language of stars. The meteors, as mighty and fiery as they were, seemed to pounce cat-like onto the night sky,  leaving behind scratches of light that seared onto my retina.

One of the leader astronomers in our midst said that some of the starlight were watching was millions of years old, having traveled light years to arrive in our here and now on the night of August 12, 2010.

I found much philosophy in that comment.

This starlight seemed to be happening in the present, but it was really a phenomenon from the past.

It made me think that reality is more illusory than I had imagined.

In my mind, I flashed back to the University of Toronto’s Trinity College where I was enrolled in Philosophy 101. This is where I first read Plato and his argument about the forms. If memory serves me right, Plato said that  most of us live in caves of our own ignorance, mistaking an appearance of a thing for the thing itself. I had just thought as much about these stars above my head. I looked upon them as present, but they were really past. I  felt deeply humbled.

And in that state of grace, as it were, I suddenly realized something: that humanity is itself something celestial, being also straddled between the two worlds of being and becoming.

I had, you could say, seen the light.

My Summer Vacation

Just back from a week of family camp in the Canadian woods with the kids only to discover that I have poison ivy.  As a kid myself, I used to run barefoot through the forests with never a care. I was oblivious to nature as a potentially dangerous place. Perhaps it was this underlying naivete that made me such an eager student of the Romantics, with Keats as my hero.  Yes, he did once write of feeling out of sorts after a day communing with nature, “as if of hemlock I had drunk….”  I have been thinking of that line from Ode to a Nightingale while trying not to scratch my burning itch.  My son has it worse than I — from his thigh to his underarm and everywhere in between, poor boy.  But I’m not suppposed to tell anyone. Calamine lotion is us!  Sitting again at my desk in the city, ulcerating and sore, I reflect on the past week as an idyll, nonetheless. I swam in Lake Couchiching, I learned how to weather forecast by reading the clouds, and one morning, without first having had my cup of coffee, I went bird-watching with Brad, who sat at the table next to mine in the communal dining room  made of logs. Earlier in the week, Brad with his bincoculars showed me something rare — a green heron. Its legs shone emerald against the lemonade leaves of the willow tree in which it lay hidden, a jewel in the rough.  It  crouched low,  its head a shock of olive feathers. It looked like a kiwi. I couldn’t get close. I was in a canoe with my new freind Curtis. But I marveled at its strangeness. And at how I had never seen such a creature before, despite living all my life side-by-side with nature. This bird opened my eyes, so to speak, becoming my own nightingale of enlightened inspiration. Worth getting poison ivy for.