NEBRASKAland December 2018

NEBRASKAland Magazine is dedicated to outstanding photography and informative writing with an engaging mix of articles and photos highlighting Nebraska’s outdoor activities, parklands, wildlife, history and people.

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48 NEBRASKAland • DECEMBER 2018 I am writing these words early morning Aug. 12, 2018, once again coming down from a night up on the hill behind our house; I went up last night, anticipating "a perfect night for the Perseid meteor showers … 60 to 80 shooting stars per hour"… having seen but eight. And four of those flashed from north-northwest to south-southeast and therefore were more than likely space junk than cosmic visitors. The problem with viewing this time was smoke haze from fires in the United States Northwest and Canada. It's always something. So last night as I lay back in the lounge chair I tossed into the back of my pickup truck, I could see waves of haze move across the sky from east to west, and while the stars were brilliant between the haze lines, even during clearing interludes, there was a blurring overcast. So, how disappointed am I this morning? Not much, actually. Any night spent under a Nebraska sky is a good night. Nothing is as comforting to me as lying under an open sky, "to neighbor once again with the stars," to rephrase a line from John Neihardt. There have been periods in my life when I have spent more nights looking up at the open sky than a confining ceiling but … uh, let me put it this way, "advance maturity" has limited those overnight adventures. I have always loved to lie facing south so I can look out at the passage of the planets and know I am looking across the disk of the solar system, perhaps when the Milky Way is visible across the disk of our galaxy, in the winter watching Orion stalk his prey across the sky through the night; or I lie with my feet to the north so I can calculate by the rotating Big Dipper around the North Star how much time I have left in my warm sleeping bag (and yes, I know it is our Earth that is rotating and not the stars but … literary license and all), a kind of reverse action 24-hour clock; or on the occasion of meteor showers (or at least promised meteor showers) I face the northeast and watch the rise of Cassiopeia. I used to point that constellation out to my children, telling them that the big W in the sky stands, of course, for Welsch. To be honest, there are very few nights when I have slept under a clear Nebraska sky, in any season, when there is not the occasional "falling star," always a surprise, always a wonder. "Meteor showers" are only nights when the numbers might be greater but the Earth is bombarded constantly by these space dashers, many only as big as a grain of sand but nonetheless burning bright because of the cosmic speed with which they slam into our atmosphere. I still remember the surprise of one night in September more than 60 years ago when I was camping with friends near Lincoln and the sky was lit by a brilliant green meteor flash. Copper perhaps? Meteor showers are not rare events: a listing of notable "showers" shows more than three dozen such events in any one year, so while a shower with particular promise is the sort of thing that takes me up the hill loaded with my lounge chair and optimism, any clear Nebraska night merits attention overhead. My next try will be the night of Dec. 13 for the Geminids display, which once again, my almanac promises to be a particularly good one since the moon will set early, offering a dark sky. I am partial to the Geminids too because unlike the Perseids, best viewed sometime around 2 a.m., the Geminids will (hopefully!) blast the sky shortly after 10 p.m., meaning I can go up the hill, spend a couple hours in the December chill, and then return to the house and a warm bed not long after my usual bedtime. There is a reason Nebraska hosts star watching parties, especially in the Sandhills, where there is less light pollution and wider horizons. But anywhere out of city lights can offer good viewing, for example in our state parks, perhaps a view across a lake or river. Given a night in the Nebraska countryside, a clear sky, and the whole cosmos offering, perhaps, a spectacle, there isn't much room left for disappointment! ■ Roger Welsch is an author, humorist, folklorist and a former essayist for CBS News Sunday Morning. He has been contributing to NEBRASKAland Magazine since 1977. By Roger Welsch Fire in the Sky A good reason for a late-night jaunt. ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF SKY & TELESCOPE/GREGG DINDERMAN

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