By John Lawrence Hanson, correspondent
Shouts of joy and squeals of excitement erupted.
It was a racket.
I imagined the Beatles getting introduced on stage. But instead of the shrieking coeds, these were coyotes.
They broke the stillness of the night. Their many voices were distinct, and in the fever of the exchange they might as well have been howling about a big show. Instead of John, Paul, George and Ringo the stars tonight were literal. The Geminid Twins, backed by winter constellations, and the Milky Way as the opening act.
The last time I really saw the Milky Way was the first night of derecho. It was an exceptionally dark and quiet night, before the auditory onslaught of electrical generators. I got to stand in my front yard and marvel at the river of stars flowing overhead. It was beautiful. But that didn’t make up for the misery of our “12 Days of Derecho.”
Maybe it was a celestial rainbow?
Tonight, the Milky Way greeted me in the darkness of a prairie a half-hour north of Marion. In Iowa, you’re never far from farm lights and those at rural homes. Those artificial stars were just few enough that the inkiness of the night sky in winter could prevail.
The yard lights of piercing, cold-white LEDs tried to steal my night vision. Others with an amber bias were more generous in sharing the night.
I trekked to the dark for the annual Geminids meteor shower. Starwatchers circle this event on their calendars for its rich performance. The two-week show crescendos to a night with maybe 120 meteors per hour. Even though tonight was early in the cycle and a school night, the skies were forecast clear. Waiting for perfect weather conditions in Iowa is a fool’s errand.
Stargazing is an appreciation for another world of nature. If all our adventures and outings were limited to between dawn and dusk, then we’ve lost half the day.
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Stargazing also demands patience. It takes at least 30 minutes for my eyes to really adjust to the night. That meant no looking at my cellphone — a nice reason for a break. To wait in the dark of a winter prairie also demands warmth. I dressed as if ice fishing and brought along my sleeping pad and down-filled bag. Frankly, I was quite cozy laid out on the sod.
My principal field-of-view was to the east, the location of the constellation Gemini, anchored by the twin stars Pollux and Castor.
In our yearly procession around the Sun, Earth passes through a field of asteroids. The ancient space rocks that get caught by Earth’s atmosphere become shooting stars. The Geminids provide the faithful many opportunities to make wishes.
I was alternating between taking in the whole of my field-of-view or using my binoculars to peer deeper into the cosmos. Celestial bodies that host a couple of stars, or maybe have a cloudy appearance with the naked eyes become wonderfully complex with that simple tool.
My first sighting of a meteor was north. I saw it through a side eye. Now I was on the board. With one sighting I could have left satisfied. But the show had such promise that it would have been a shame to leave early.
Orion was rising from the eastern horizon. Clearly the night was young because his belt showed he was still lying down.
Higher and toward the southwest an orange light dominated that sector. Binos or not, the light was strong on its left side and it curved back around toward its right. I thought of someone wearing a headlamp and peaking around a corner.
But it was no star, rather our neighbor, Mars. Tonight he seemed at peace. Even warriors need to take a break.
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The coyotes may have been on to something. Soon after their announcements, a meteor blazed a satisfying trail right in front of my line-of-sight. That is what people wait for and what keeps them wanting more.
The binoculars and eyeballs rotation continued. With magnification, high above Orion a cluster of stars took the shape of a big headed robin chick, with those floppy stubs for wings, outstretched in demand of food. Taurus then became, upon my inspection, the “Baby Bird.”
Next time I’m bringing companions and we will make that our parlor game.
I could have stayed all night. I was warm comfy, and interested. But it ended up being only a couple of hours. Tomorrow morning’s work necessitated some sleep. A screen of high, thin and scattered clouds infiltrated my viewing area. It didn’t take much interference to diminish the show. I discovered my sleeping bag sported a heavy dew. My night would have ended early whether I liked it or not.
I saw six meteors and was pleased pink. The sights, sounds and smells of the prairie at night are testaments as to why astronomy is one of the seven classical liberal arts. Here’s to continuing education.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board.