Bucks County Herald

Kathryn Finegan Clark: By the Way

It’s the Perseid time of year



A NASA photograph of a Perseid Meteor Shower over West Virginia.

The memory that chases away all other thoughts every evening at this time of year is that of scanning the skies with my father. He is long dead, but I still feel special when I recall those walks to see the stars.

When a clear August night rolls around in the country, I forget about the pre-air-conditioned stinging August days and sultry nights in town. We lived in Bristol, sea-level humid and hot.

Starting when I was about 9, my father and I would watch the Perseids, the August meteor shower, flash through the night sky. During other months we would look at the stars and he would point out constellations to me, but it was August that mattered.

The house I grew up in was built in the 1920s and like other homes of the time it had no garage. Neighbors around the corner had a newer house and a two-car garage, but only one car, so my father rented the space. He and my mother would drive home from his pharmacy, usually around 10 o’clock, and I would ride to the garage with him and the two of us would walk home. My brother and sister, older and involved with friends or busy otherwise, or just not interested, never joined us.

It was such a special time – a rare thing to have him all to myself. My father had been taught by the Jesuits, a classical education – I still have his Latin and Greek grammars. To me, it seemed, he talked about things other people had not even heard of and he encouraged my inquiring mind, sought to fill my head with wonder, never tiring of my questions – or at least, not showing it. This went on summer after summer, when I was young.

And when my own children were growing up I would wake them sometimes when they were small, spread a blanket on our brick patio and lie down to make the looking up easier on the neck.

I could hardly believe how brilliant the meteors looked up here in the darkness of Durham – diamond-studded golden streaks in a black velvet sky. I’ve always been in awe at the sight – and I hope I always will be.

I thought it was just my imagination, until our friend and neighbor, Bruce Stutz, excitedly told me that the Durham-Riegelsville area is actually the darkest spot between Philadelphia and Allentown, and he had a map of the night sky to prove it.

Bruce is an environmental writer and the author of several fascinating books. on science, nature, and the environment. A former editor-in-chief of Natural History magazine, he is the author of “Natural Lives, Modern Times,” a fascinating ecological exploration of the changing Delaware River, and “Chasing Spring, An American Journey Through a Changing Season.”

Bruce is concerned about light pollution – and indeed, that is a worry. Light pollution maps show almost the entire East Coast and other highly populated areas in the United States glowing like Christmas trees. It is a global problem; too much artificial light can disturb the ecosystem.

Not so much in Durham yet – Bruce’s map showed the bright glow of Philadelphia and Allentown, with dimmer color for smaller cities and towns, and there, covering Durham and Riegelsville, a midnight black blob. Durham does, after all, have only two streetlights in its 10 square miles.

So it’s not my imagination – the meteors are not brighter here, but the night sky is blacker – and my husband and I will be out there scanning the skies. Meteors are easy to see. Basically all you need are clear skies, and a place as far as possible from artificial lights, and Durham fills the bill there. New Yorkers have to leave home and go to a place like Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn or Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side and they still won’t find the darkness of Durham.

Our daughter-in-law, Jeanna Bryner, is managing editor of livescience.com. She referred me to space.com, for which she used to write, to find the best time to look for the Perseids. There, I found an interview with NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke who said the peak of the Perseid meteor shower will be around 1 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 12), which means the night before and the night after, sky watchers may see as many as 80 meteors an hour.

Jeanna also directed me to a table that is updated daily and shows you exactly where to look in the night sky from your location on that date. It’s posted on https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/meteor-shower/perseid.html.

Cooke said the Perseids are visible from mid-July to late August, but this weekend will be the best time to catch them. They’re only bits of dust and debris trailing behind Comet Swift-Tuttle when it passes by Earth every year, but to me, they’re pure magic.

kathrynfclark@verizon.net

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