19 August 2002

"Go, and catch a falling star,
   Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me, where all past years are,
   Or who cleft the Devil's foot."
     - J. Donne

I was at a birthday party last weekend. Since it was such a lovely night, we decided to move ourselves outdoors, where we could enjoy the perfect summer night and the stars. We had a wonderful time, with good food, good drink, light-hearted conversation, gifts, candles, and cake -- all the magical things that make cherished memories between old friends. This was a special gathering, for several reasons. It was the first time we'd gotten together as a group since I returned from my trip overseas, and everyone wanted to hear all about the journey. It was the first time we impulsively decided to abandon the comfort of the beautifully appointed table for the rustic pleasure of dining outdoors. It was the anniversary of our twentieth year of having such get-togethers. It marked the event of our entry into the third age -- the birthday we celebrated was the seventieth for our friend. It was the first night of the annual celestial fireworks known as the Perseids.

As our evening wore on, I happened to look up at the stars through the thick canopy of trees surrounding the lawn. To my great amazement, within a ten-second span, I saw three enormous trails of light as stars fell across the inky sky. At first, I didn't realize what I was seeing, and remarked, "Oh, look! Fireworks!" Our host remarked that fireworks were illegal in this town, and then his wife said it was probably just the meteor shower. For the next hour, we sat together in the middle of the lawn, gazing intently at the sky, our conversation pleasant and desultory as we waited for the next trail of glory to light the firmament. Ever since people have been watching the stars, this show has gone on. I've read that the shower rate for the Perseids has been measured as high as 200 per hour, but is more common in recent years at 40 to 60 per hour. We probably saw 10 in the hour we sat watching, but that was undoubtedly due to our location, and the nearby presence of neighboring ground lights. Still, it was a wonderful show.

At the end of the hour, it was late. We gathered up our things, made our goodbyes with embraces and kisses, and drove off to the various towns where we each now live. As I drove, I decided I wanted to find a really dark, open space in which to watch the meteor shower. I wasn't at all sleepy, and according to the astronomers, the Perseids weren't going to peak until well after midnight. I wasn't tired, so I began my search for a viewing field.

I drove nearly 75 miles before I gave up and headed home. I zigzagged through the small towns and country roads, scouted out football fields, parks, and commons. What I discovered is that darkness and open space are a rare combination in this day and age. Every place I went had either one, or the other, but none had both. Most, in fact, had neither. Even at the late hour, electric lights blazed their halogen, neon, fluorescent, incandescent glows upon the roads, the trees, the houses, the buildings. The lights obscured the stars, taking the places of the stars themselves.

This struck me as odd. When I was in Indonesia, not a night passed when I did not stand outside my bungalow for a few minutes at least, staring up at the star clusters and galaxies of unfamiliar constellations. There, I'd felt close to the universe, and the gods. Here, I felt earthbound and constrained.

I went into my house, wondering who decided it was necessary to blot out the darkness, to never give the stars a chance to entertain us.

Excuse me. I need to publish this page, before there's a power outage and the lights go out, leaving me in the dark.


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