Archives for posts with tag: the night sky

What is it about lighthouses that captures the imagination—mine, anyway—and directs it out to sea? Their silent performance of a thankless duty? Their stoic disregard of the extreme marine climate? Their stark but elegant beauty and strong but lean engineering?

Whenever I see one, I immediately start to think about how the beacon might appear to a passing ship or, more appropriately, a boat bound for whatever harbor is nearby. What does the lighthouse look like from a mile or two offshore?

Not much, probably. During the day, details of coastal structures are difficult to make out. A lighthouse may seem immense to someone standing at its base but from afar, even the tallest tower will be dwarfed by the mountains and cliffs that often loom over coastlines.

And at night, all that can be seen is a ray of light.

I can’t recall ever spotting a lighthouse beacon from a boat or ship (truthfully, I’ve spent very little time on water) but I have seen one from afar. A few years ago, we spent a delightful early summer weekend in Bermuda. Our resort was on the southwest coast of the island, facing the North Carolina shore, only a few hundred miles away.

Bermuda is small enough and sufficiently isolated from other places that its night sky is truly dark. Looking out through the sliding glass door of our room early one morning, we detected the motion of a faint beam of light as is it flashed across the horizon.

The source of the light fell well below our view (by several miles, at least), but the sweeping path the ray of light followed was immediately recognizable as that from a lighthouse beacon. It was somehow comforting to see evidence that across the lonely expanse of open ocean lay our home.

Back in the golden days of ship travel, it must have been heartwarming to those returning from a long voyage across the ocean to see a first sign that other people were preparing for the ship’s arrival, that at least one person was waiting up in anticipation.

Nowadays, that comfort is a bit cold. While visiting lighthouses here in Maine (of which there are many, given the state’s craggy shoreline), we have learned that most, if not all, of the facilities are automated. The charming cottages that were once home to lighthouse keepers (and their families, if they were lucky) are now vacant.

Fortunately, there are historical societies and preservation groups such as the American Lighthouse Foundation to tend them and offer tours. And, as we learned at Owl’s Head Lighthouse, the United States Coast Guard still sends someone around to ensure that the lights are in working order so that even if no one is home, someone has left a light on for us.

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I’m beginning to think that the Perseid meteor shower is nothing but a hoax, an elaborate practical joke pulled off by astronomers to keep all of us awake all night.

Based on the promise of as many as 90 shooting stars per hour, Rachel and I stayed up well past our bedtime tonight to see if we could catch a few of them.  The viewing conditions were good, for a change:  no moon and only the occasional wisp of a cloud (there was complete cloud cover during last night’s peak).  In fact, the night was unusually ideal with warm temperatures, low humidity and—blissfully—very few insects.

But there were also very few meteors.

Part of the problem for us is that we have a limited view of the night sky.  We live in the woods and there is only a small clearing where the house, pool and garden are located.  The surrounding trees are very tall and their height is accentuated by a rise in grade to the north of our house.  Consequently, lying on a hammock by the pool, we were gazing upwards almost as if at the bottom of a pit or opaque bowl.

A further complication is that we live only 60 miles or so from New York City.  It may seem like a great distance—over an hour’s travel by car—but at faster than 186,000 miles per second, the millions of lumens produced by the city’s buildings, billboards and streetlamps arrive in an instant.  There is little to obstruct the rays and a high concentration of particles in the air to diffuse them.  As a result, our southern sky is constantly aglow, even on moonless nights.

Yet another problem is that we are not night owls.  Staying up late is difficult enough but getting up in the middle of the night is next to impossible.  In previous years, I’ve set an alarm for 3:00 am or thereabouts, the time at which the constellation Perseus (from which the meteors appear to originate) is overhead.  But often it is chilly at that hour.  And even when I have roused myself and made my way outdoors, I have never really awakened sufficiently to appreciate what I was seeing.

Instead, we settle for late-night viewing, after 10:00 pm until around midnight.  At this hour, Perseus is still low in the northeastern sky, behind a high screen of maple trees.  Therefore, we miss (I presume) the bulk of the meteor shower.  I always imagine that a fireworks-like display of shooting stars is whooshing this way and that (yes, I know that meteors are actually silent) as we strain our eyes in vain, the scene obscured from our sight by the dense foliage.  Or maybe there is nothing there.

So, we didn’t get the lightshow we were hoping for; in an hour and a half of viewing, we caught sight of two satellites and a grand total of four meteors (to be fair, they followed the long, slow trajectory for which the Perseids are famous).  On the other hand, we did get a pleasant evening together outdoors, in the sweet summer air, listening to the comforting background music of the crickets and cicadas.