Lunar Eclipse, Los Angeles, 5:38AM, December 10, 2011
There was once a man with a large telescope who would come out onto the cobblestones of Fell’s Point in Baltimore on the night of the New Moon. He’d pick different spots every time – sometimes by the harbor pier where the water taxis would dock, other times by the corner bar east of the old police terminal, or maybe back by the old brick warehouses where people parked their cars. He’d set up his ‘scope, aim it at some celestial body, like Jupiter or Saturn or the Orion Nebula, and invite random passersby to take a view.
I visited him and his telescope dozens of times. A small tip jar made from a sawed off two-liter soda bottle was suspended from the base of the tripod with a handwritten donation sign. Over the course of my time in the city, I think I probably gave him $1 per view. I do remember once when he had Saturn in full focus and I could see all the rings AND Titan I gave him a $5 bill, which was a small fortune for me back in those days. Looking back, I know it was worth $50.
Other local astronomers, amateurs and pros alike, delighted in mocking him. You can’t get the best view of celestial of events in a city, they’d say. Too much ambient light. Too much light pollution. But we lined up anyway. Because the point wasn’t the best view. The point was to get a glimpse, any glimpse, of this marvelous stuff. He thought that if you could get one city kid to think beyond the highways and the bricks and the sirens and whatever else they faced in their urban lives, it was worth it.
It worked for the adults, too.
I used to dream that when I had a brick-and-mortar business of my own in the city, that I would have regular nighttime city astronomy events. Sure you could drive out to the boonies at 4AM to see the Leonid showers in their fullest glory, or to take in a particularly nice view Mars. But there’s something special about defying light pollution and finding inspiration in your own backyard. It makes me feel less disconnected from the natural world, the same way gardening and foraging do. The Farmer’s Almanac has moon phase charts for a reason. Our night sky provides a handy planting and harvest calendar, or at least it did, many moons ago.
Looking up is just another way to blur that line, to make the urban a little less noisy and detached and to push aside the highways, the bricks, and the sirens. For a little while anyway.
Total lunar eclipses happen once every two or three years. The next visible one for us won’t be until 2014. And truth be told, I hadn’t really planned on seeing this one. I keep early hours and just walked out, looked up, remembered, and rushed back inside to get my camera. In the process, I woke Steve who immediately joined me outside. My planet was aligning just so and was blocking sunlight to another planetary body, which I could see from the surface, even through an encroaching marine layer in my atmosphere.
Wrap your brain around that. Meanwhile, I’m going to go find a moon phase planting calendar.