Monthly Archives: December 2013

Fallout From a Fatal Gift

There’s this eerie sound that eucalyptus trees make when the wind is passing through the spaces between their belts of peeling bark. It’s not like any other tree I know of; when eucalypts talk, I hear the metal gate in front of the house my father grew up in, creaking on its hinges. That gate, along with the house and its porch and the purple and white periwinkles that grew in its garden, were all destroyed years ago to make way for new condos; but when I was little I used to stand on its bars and hitch the thing back and forth with all my weight. I was a very quiet child, and it was as much the creak as the swinging I enjoyed: a small assertion that I could disrupt the world.

I was waiting for something else to disrupt the world early this Saturday morning, lying on my back on a ridgetop in the Berkeley hills and listening to the eucalypts blowing in the oceanic wind:

We call them falling stars, as if they simply floated down like ash from someone’s cigarette late in the quiet night—as if they did what fond hearts do in love. We call them shooting stars, and this is a less gentled name; but if the incandescent streaks we see are missiles, who is hurling them?

They also call us.

It was the Geminids I’d come to answer at 4:45am. Forty-five minutes earlier I’d woken to my alarm, made myself a thermos of hot, sweet tea, petted a confused cat on the head, and driven up to Wildcat Canyon. Though city lights washed out the sky, the night was cloudless, fogless, and as dark as I could hope for it to be, since I had waited till the waxing moon had set like some great, aging cinder to the west. I was alone. Was quite awake. And waiting. God, I wanted the whole damn thing to fall.

It didn’t, but for over an hour and a half I watched pieces of the firmament break loose and arc across the sky, and was entirely happy to be where I was. One was a tremendous fireball that caught me in mid-step even before I’d settled down, bright as a sparkler and leaving a white trail behind it that remained for nearly a full minute afterwards.

Most were quite clear, but with short-lived trajectories; some were so faint they whispered in the corners of my eyes and on another night I might have talked myself into believing I’d imagined them. They came every few minutes, and I’m sure I missed a few pouring tea into a cup and sipping quickly as I could, unwilling to release the sky from view. But come they did, and after a while I knew I would not stop seeing them until the sun came up.

It’s a strange sensation, having confidence in shooting stars.

The sun did rise, eventually. I really could not complain.

The sun did rise, eventually. I really could not complain.

The year’s last major meteor shower goes by The Geminids because the shooting stars it sends out seem to radiate from the constellation Gemini, whose twin stars ride high and clear in the winter sky. Every shower has a core like this: The radiant of the Perseids is Perseus; the radiant of the Leonids, Leo. And every shower has another, truer, core: a comet following its own eccentric path across the solar system. When comets pass the sun, they heat and simmer, and along with steam they boil off parcels of cosmic debris that linger in a stream in space, only to burn up in our planet’s atmosphere as we hurtle through them every year.

There’s no such thing as an ordinary display of shooting stars. No wild, incendiary hail could ever be pedestrian. But the Geminids are special even among meteor showers.

They’re relatively young, for one thing—people have been watching the Perseids since before the Common Era, and the Leonids for over a thousand years. The Geminids showed up out of the blue, out of the black, out of the winter night, fewer than two centuries ago. They’ve grown steadily in number and intensity since then, and seem still to be mounting; a single fireball last year burned brighter than the full moon. Their fusillade lasts longer than a day, so you can watch them everywhere on earth.

The Geminids are mysterious, too in that lovely way scientific mysteries have of deepening even as their details come to light. Their source, the mystery goes, is not obviously a comet. Instead it is a dense, rocky body that looks more like an asteroid, and wouldn’t seem to be capable of burning off meteoroids as easily as an icy comet would. The latest theory astronomers have is that the body is in fact an old comet, still carrying ice within its heart but covered now in a clotted crust of interplanetary dust that makes it look like solid rock.

This doesn’t, prettily, explain it all. The debris this asteroid-comet-comet-asteroid casts out every year isn’t enough—not by a long shot—to account for the mass of the Geminids. And so our modern skywatchers wait, and scan the heavens, and hope to understand a little more about their secrets every time our orbits cross.

One thing they did right in the meantime, I think: they gave the strange fountainhead of the Geminids a wonderful name. It’s called 3200 Phaethon. The 3200 is because it was the 3,200th asteroid (or asteroid-like object, anyway) to be formally named. The Phaethon? Ah.

I remember Phaeton, although he’s not one of the more prominent figures in Greek mythology, because when I was 13 we did a series of skits based on the classics and my group performed unlucky Phaeton’s story. I think it was the tragedy that appealed to us—the tragedy and the crisis of identity. In case your own checkered past did not include such dramatics, I’ll tell you Phaeton was the mortal son of Clymene, a water nymph, and Helios: the god of the sun.

Around the time Phaeton came of age, we’re told, Clymene revealed his shining origins. None of his friends believed he’d come from divine stock, and to be honest, the young boy didn’t know if he believed it either. Off Phaethon went to find Helios, who embraced him warmly. But this wasn’t enough for our hero; he wanted to become his father. Let me, begged Phaethon, drive your chariot, the sun, across the sky. Just for one night. Let me take your place.

This goes as well as you’d expect. Phaethon, incapable of controlling the wild horses of the sun, careens across the sky and scorches heaven and earth alike until Zeus shoots him down with a thunderbolt to save the universe.

Some scholars believe the Phaethon myth was based on real celestial event, or that its purpose was to explain the desertification of the Sahara some four or five thousand years ago. More recently, it’s been employed as a metaphor for our own passionate mismanagement of the earth. We too, you might agree, have lost control of the reins we took. And there are monsters on the road.

“Suppose I should lend you the chariot, what would you do? Could you keep your course while the sphere was revolving under you? Perhaps you think that there are forests and cities, the abodes of gods, and palaces and temples on the way. On the contrary, the road is through the midst of frightful monsters….Nor will you find it easy to guide those horses, with their breasts full of fire that they breathe forth from their mouths and nostrils. I can scarcely govern them myself, when they are unruly and resist the reins.

Beware, my son, lest I be the donor of a fatal gift; recall your request while yet you may.”

—Bulfinch’s Mythology