15 December 2014

The Geminids let me down

Last night a strong easterly wind howled in the trees and banged on the broken verandah roof. Easterlies do the damage here, picking up speed as they race down from the Ruahine, and because they’re uncommon, the trees grow with less bracing against these winds from the east. When a tree goes down, chances are good that an easterly did it.

Still, by easterly standards this was tolerable. I stood in the dark, the big down jacket fully zipped, hands in pockets, watching the sky overhead. Despite the wind, no cloud obscured any part of the sky except the crest of the southern Ruahine, where a low cap rolled over from Hawkes Bay. No moonlight faded the stars nor cast shadows under the birches. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, more and more stars appeared. I watched the sky for a long time, hoping to see something of the Geminid meteor shower, but nothing appeared. I had a wish prepared, ready for a sighting of a shooting star. A satellite crossed the sky, a star travelling fast, and a little while later another sailed through Orion and onwards on its endless orbit, but satellites are not shooting stars and wishing on one seemed unlikely to work.

Eventually I returned inside and looked on the Internet for up-to-date information about the Geminid shower. Look 28 degrees past true north, it said, and about 11 degrees above the horizon. I went back outside later, still about two hours short of peak viewing time, but I wasn’t going to wait up until one in the morning. Surely something would show up early. I checked my wish, found it good, and kept looking. I looked, and looked, and looked more. Even though I hadn’t been gazing straight up, my neck hurt when I lowered my head to its normal position, and for a moment I felt a little unsteady on my feet. Overhead, the Milky Way scintillated with countless stars; low in the south-east, the Southern Cross hung upside down. I ran an imaginary line through its long axis, another perpendicular to the one joining the two pointers, and noted  where the two lines met. That’s south, down there. I like doing that.

The easterly continued to whip my hair around; the meteors continued to refuse to appear. I gave them another 60 seconds, counting down in the dark, then counted down another ten. I walked back to the door, watched a little longer, and braced myself for disappointment. The stars shone undisturbed by delinquent meteors.

I stepped inside and closed the door, my wish not only unfulfilled but not even wished for. It’s just ridiculous superstition, I thought. If you have a wish, do something that might bring it about.

Sometimes, though, nothing else is any more effective than wishing on stars.

Photograph: Another night a long time ago; a night not as good for meteor spotting; a night when wishing would have been just as effective as last night.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor