Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Gift from the Sky

     I just finished Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. Written in 1955, it's a small book of meditations on simplicity and solitude, relationships and roles. It grew out of an island vacation, strolls on the beach and the shells she found there. Taking nature as inspiration for contemplation has a long tradition. Thoreau's Walden was published in 1854. Aldo Leopold gave us A Sand County Almanac in 1949. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard came in 1974. Just a few notable titles in a large, rewarding canon.

     There's no sea here in Washington County and our few beaches offer very short walks. Shells are limited to a handful of freshwater species with the hot spot being the lower Poultney River where you'll find a dozen different types of mussels. You can find 500 million year old fossil gastropods and brachiopods from when there were beaches lapped by tropical seas, but you might need a rock hammer to do it.

     We do have plenty of sky though and this summer seems like Christmas with lots of gifts from the heavens. The seasons big event is found in the west at dusk where Venus and Jupiter are putting on quite a show. They're the brightest objects in the night sky (other than the Moon) and they've been inching closer together in recent weeks. On Tuesday evening, June 30, they will almost touch, then gradually pull apart. Look for them in the twilight just below the constellation Leo the lion who looks like he's ready to pounce on the unsuspecting pair.
     Saturn better be careful as well. It floats just above the stinging stars of Scorpius. Look for the golden planet to the south about half way up from the horizon.

     Of our other neighbors, Mars and Mercury are close to the Sun and tough to see right now. The Moon will be full on Wednesday, July 1. And way, way out there Pluto is expecting a visit from the New Horizons spacecraft in the middle of July.
     In the east three bright stars form the summer triangle in what's known as an asterism. They are Vega, Deneb and Altair and they herald the Milky Ways rising prominence as the summer progresses.
     Later in the season the Perseid meteor shower peaks around August 10 - 13. I've heard the northern lights put in an appearance last Monday, June 22. I saw some photos on the web but missed the real thing. Auroral displays are rare and unpredictable, making a sighting especially memorable.

     Skywatching, like other good things, isn't just for after dark. Clouds mimic Heinz ketchup - there must be at least 57 varieties. Learn to read them and you'll start to understand the complex interactions of moisture, temperature and pressure that keeps our weather in constant flux. Or just enjoy the show while humming Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now.
     Speaking of shows, probably the most amazing natural phenomenon we're treated to here in the Northeast is a summer thunderstorm. The drama starts when solar heating produces convection updrafts that create towering cumulonimbus clouds. Electrical charges develop and in 1/10,000 of a second (blink and you miss it) traveling at 60,000 miles per second the lightning bolt heats the surrounding air to temperatures in excess of 50,000 degrees which causes rapid expansion, and a shock wave we hear as thunder. This is immensely entertaining if you're a safe distance away and terrifying if caught beneath.

     I've sat in the relative safety of my disheveled garage and watched storms that seemed to cross Lake George and then dogleg down the length of Washington County, pummeling Argyle, Greenwich and Easton in turn. When darkness descends the clouds momentarily light up orange and yellow when flashes go off, way more impressive than any neon marquee.
     I used to park at the high point of Shields Road up above Hedges Lake. It was a great spot for sunsets, moonrises and dark night Milky Ways. But the very best stargazing has to be from the top of Buck Mountain. For years we had a tradition of hiking up in the evening, watching the Sun sink behind the Adirondacks and then enjoying the 4th of July fireworks put on by Bolton Landing across the lake. After the last pop-fiss-pow it was other worldly dark and quiet. Perfect for lying back in awe of the twinkling star scene you seemed to be floating in. A warming sunrise over the Vermont mountains and pancakes with just picked wild blueberries awaited in the morning. Gifts from the sky that I'll never forget.



Gazer Aid

     A few skygazing resources you might find useful:

     * Sky and Telescope web site has a weekly updated sky at a glance feature and print magazine is essential for amateur astronomers. Subscribe or look for a copy at local libraries.
     * Eye on the night sky is a daily feature on Vermont Public Radio with good information on the web site.
     *Astronomy Picture of the Day is eye candy for stargazers with a gorgeous new photo everyday, detailed explanation and links if you want to know more. One of the oldest sites on the web, they just celebrated their 20th anniversary.
     * NASA Your tax dollars at work. Amazing photos from Hubble and other out there spacecraft.
     * Space weather is a good source for possible aurora activity.
     * Cloud Atlas Not that weird movie I couldn't make heads or tails of. Here you'll find photos and info on every type of cloud imaginable.
     * Salem Astronomical Society Meetings and star parties where you can peer through a telescope guided by someone who knows what to look for.

     * At the library: Lots of old fashioned books (remember those?) on astronomy, skywatching and weather phenomenon. I've recently enjoyed: Exploring the Night Sky by Patrick Moore, Secrets of the Night Sky by Bob Berman, Dava Sobel's The Planets and From Dust to Life: the origin and evolution of our solar system by John Chambers. If you just have to have a screen try The Great Courses DVD's featuring Professor Alex Filippenko lecturing on astronomy and skywatching.

Wild Watch...
     Here are three photos taken by Gordon Ellmers along the Feeder Canal in Fort Edward. The first is a Wood Thrush with a tasty snack. The other two show a Great Blue Heron with more than a snack! If it swallowed that catfish it might need medical attention. Luckily Gordie is both a fine photographer and a veterinarian.



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