I am sad to tell you that tonight is the night of the Perseid meteor shower. Sad because here we have pouring rain and crashing thunder; not the best conditions for viewing.
A meteor shower is the debris shed by a comet as it orbits the sun, and we on Earth pass through several showers of comet-debris during the course of each year. When one of the meteors happens to enter our atmosphere, it is traveling at such a tremendous rate (thousands of miles an hour) that it’s ignited by friction—giving the impression of a falling star—and generally burns up before it hits the ground. (Sometimes a meteor makes it all the way to Earth without being consumed, in which case it is termed a meteorite. A few very large meteorites have made impressive dents in our planet.)
The Perseids are the meteors of the comet Swift-Tuttle, through whose rubble we pass in August. They are named for the constellation Perseus, because from Earth’s perspective they seem to be coming from that direction. In mid-August in this hemisphere Perseus rises in the northeast at around 11 pm or so. This year, August 12th, starting at around midnight, is supposed to be the best time for viewing the Perseids. Ha! Well, probably some of you live where it is not raining.
To view a meteor shower, it’s best to get out of the city or densely populated suburb—in other words, head for an area without lots of artificial light. In past years we have set the alarm clock (sometimes the best time is 3 or 4 am) and then gone out to sit on a deck, or lie on a rooftop, or stretch out in a big treeless field on a blanket (or, if in Vermont, shivering under the blanket) and then waited, gazing at the night sky.
Some years we’ve seen many, many. Other years (as above) we’re not so lucky. But go do it anyway. How often do we even take time to look at the Milky Way? That in itself is a rare and wonderful experience for the frazzled urban person. The additional sight of sparkling shooting stars sailing across the night sky is seriously magical.
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
My mother shared with my husband a deep love of sailing ships and the sea, as well as sea-related poetry and books. They discovered together and passed back and forth the entire Patrick O’Brien series, set aboard ship during the Napoleonic Wars. (My mother was convinced she had been a cabin boy in some past life and had drowned off the White Horse Reef.)
At her memorial service, my dear husband, never one to stand up and speak before a crowd, decided to read aloud in my mother’s honor this poignant and evocative poem they both love, written by John Masefield (1878-1967), whose birthday it is today. For me now my mother and my husband are forever within its lines.
Today is the birthday of Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), born in London, England, into a rather bohemian musical, literary, theatrical family. The lucky girl. She was delicate, and so was homeschooled among shelves crammed full of books—fairy and folk tales, history and mythology. She began writing quite young and was encouraged (of course); in her teens she collaborated with her brothers on their theatre productions; by age 19 she sold her first fairy tale.
Farjeon went on to write a range of literature for children: stories, history verses, plays, and lots of poems, among them the one above written in 1931 to accompany an old Gaelic melody and later popularized by folk singer Cat Stevens and other musicians. Her work abounds in wit, unexpected turns of phrase and plot, magic, humor, and nonsense. She is probably best known for her collection The Little Bookroom and the Martin Pippin stories, but if you have a little girl who loves to jump rope and she has NOT read Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep, you must drop everything and run straight to the library together to check it out. (If it has not yet been pulled from the library shelf and sold on Amazon. See Each Day post 2/11/10.)
Japanese animation lovers, take note. The King’s Daughter Cries for the Moon, an Eleanor Farjeon story originally published in 1955, is presently being adapted for a Japanese/Korean animation feature, scheduled for release in spring 2011. Now wouldn’t that surprise Eleanor.