It’s been calm here this week, unusually mild for November. Temperatures have been in the 50s, skies are a light blue, the sunlight pale and weak on the bare trees, bare ground. This exposure is fleeting. It will be covered soon. But there has been a peaceful feeling all around, a sharp contrast to the storm that flies above our heads at night. I am referring to the Leonids, meteor showers that occur at this time each November. These meteors which silently whiz across the night sky in the early morning hours, have an intensely dense scientific explanation, something about a combination of solar wind, ionization, photons, frozen gases, and the remains of comets which passed over and above us in the 1700s and 1800s — incomprehensible things like that are written to explain this magnificent show. All I know is how spectacular these showers are. I actually had never heard of them until perhaps the year 2000. Previously, I had been an ardent follower of the Perseids, which pass through in the middle of the month of August, usually around midnight. I always hope for clear skies on those nights and plan to stay up. The view of the night sky is almost unobstructed here and there is very little artificial light to obscure the constellations. A good place to study the stars.
So I became more interested and heard about the Leonids in time to view the shower in the year 2002, one of its banner years. Leonids are best viewed in the early morning hours, before sunrise. So that year, around 4 a.m., I went out into the west field that rises above my house. Walking with my head looking straight up, I gasped at the sight. I could well have been a shepherd outside of Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s birth, my surprise, amazement and awe was that deep. Suddenly I was standing in the light. I’ve read that sometimes 500 meteors pass by within an hour’s time. I have no way of knowing how many were zooming over my head but there were many. It was not so much the frequency but the brightness. Each meteor lit up my field like daylight or a bit more like the light from a prolonged flash of lightning. The other remarkable element in all of this is the silence: all this light and action and not a single sound.
I stood there so long, the brilliance of this stream illuminating the field all around me, that my feet went numb. I wished someone had been with me to confirm that I was not dreaming, that this profound radiance was real. I finally went inside and lay on the couch just long enough to thaw my feet, intending to go back out. But I fell asleep instead and, not so surprisingly, dreamt of spaceships and UFO’s passing over the arc of my silent field, otherwise only visited by a solitary deer or wild turkeys, pecking the ground. It was as close as I’ve ever come to the divine.
And so this is the time for the Leonids. And this year they are predicting the showers will be intense. And the skies are clear, at least they are here in New Hampshire. The showers peaked last night, November 17, but I was on the road, giving a talk in the town of Plaistow, New Hampshire. I got home late and went right to bed, intending to get up early to view the height of this silent storm. When I opened my eyes, the sun was already starting to light the horizon. Too late. But there is still time. The Leonids will be passing overhead again tonight and all the way through to Saturday, November 21. Try to find a dark place, in the early morning hours. Whatever you do, don’t miss them. If you have ever doubted there is something greater than ourselves, something beyond the silly aspirations of such mortals as Sarah Palin, beyond the ponderings over who caused the death of Michael Jackson, you need to view the Leonids. I’ll be out in my field with my dogs, head thrown back, heavy socks on my feet, prayers of gratitude on my lips.