How a Burst of Light in the Sky Illuminated Something Primal

Videos of a mysterious celestial phenomenon captured a once-common human emotion: awe at the wonder of the heavens.,

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At around 9 o’clock on the night of March 25, the sky above my house in Seattle lit up with an astonishing display. I know this not because I happened to see it — I was inside, as I am too often, working at my computer — but because my Twitter feed was suddenly full of different versions of the same, uncanny video. The earliest clips captured what looked like a single streak of light, fracturing outward into a shimmering cascade. What came next looked like the world’s largest and longest-lasting firework, or a huge shower of comets hitting all at once, or a waterfall of light falling sideways.

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It was golden, spectacular, alarming, otherworldly, indecipherable, unknown. While the cameras rolled, I could hear the voices of the people pointing them upward. Again and again, in tones ranging from rapturous to fearful (and using a variety of expletives, depending on the personality of the videographer), they looked to the sky and asked, “What is that?”

I searched for more videos, clicked on them, watched the lights streak by again, searched for more. People were posting them from all across the Pacific Northwest, from Oregon to British Columbia. Some showed the light moving at different angles, or closer or farther away, or above a convenience store or a football field or a housing development, but all had the same dark sky, the same fantastical brightness moving across it.

The visuals were more or less the same — the camera trained on the heavens — but it was the audio, which stayed firmly on Earth, that kept me searching for more recordings. For those few dazzling moments, the people who took the videos had no idea what they were witnessing. It was so different from anything the world had ever shown them that one guy, sounding intoxicated by awe (if not by something else), looked up and murmured, “This is a movie, bro!”

Some people guessed a plane crash, or meteorites, or aliens, or wondered if it was some kind of attack; one woman stopped herself midway through the word “comet,” already in doubt — did comets arrive by the dozen? Other people made no guesses at all, just looked up at the sky with an “Oh, my God” or an “Are you kidding me?” or an “I’ve never seen anything like that.” A lot of them were yelling. One video caught a man saying to his friend, who had stopped while driving, “There’s a car behind you, buddy.” The friend, focused on the sky, replied: “I don’t care! What the hell is this about?”

By that point, thanks to tweets from the local office of the National Weather Service and an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, I’d learned the answer to that question. The light was not otherworldly at all; it was the opposite. Three weeks before, a SpaceX rocket flew into space from a launching pad at Cape Canaveral. It was a ship from our planet, loaded with satellites to scatter into low orbit around us, and now, following a failure of its planned deorbit burn, part of it was re-entering the atmosphere whence it came, kicking up a startling spray of fireballs. It was nothing more mysterious than another billionaire’s rocket, nothing scarier than the ongoing process of turning the sky into commerce and trash. We were watching a piece of humanity falling back to Earth.

Not so very long ago, before our scientific era, it was a common experience to encounter, in the sky above us, troubling things that could not be explained, and to build myths and taboos and religions around them. Mark Twain, who was born when a certain comet passed by Earth, predicted that he would die when it returned. He wrote a whole book on the premise that a modern time-traveler who could forecast an eclipse would have been seen, in the past, as a terrifying magician. The Romantics distinguished between the merely beautiful and the truly sublime; the second was overwhelming, in part, because humans feared and could not understand what Edmund Burke called “the terrible uncertainty of the thing.”

I thought of this — our ancient trembling before a vast and unknown sky — when I heard the genuine fright in some of the videos. One small-sounding girl tried to keep the panic out of her voice as she asked her mother, “Mom, are we OK?” Often, though, the fear sounded almost incredulous, as if these 21st-century narrators — having long doubted that the sky had real surprises to offer us anymore — were suddenly questioning that assumption. Mark Twain did die just after the comet returned, 75 years after he was born beneath it.

Our social media selves are ever more crafted and curated, but these recordings captured, accidentally, something intimate and exposed.

“Are we about to die?” some people in the videos asked one another, laughing unsettled laughs. One man wondered, “Are we about to look like dinosaurs?” Others called the Fire Department, even though it was the sky that was on fire. They had to call somebody. Yet there were also those who seemed to embrace the mystery. The frightened little girl was with her mother and, it sounded like, her grandmother. She eventually asked them what everyone else was asking: “What is that?” The grandmother had an enviable, almost knowing acceptance in her voice when she calmly answered, “We don’t know.”

The rocket was, from one perspective, no big deal: It was one of 10 that were launched around the world in March, and when it re-entered the atmosphere it became at least the 10th piece of space debris bigger than a ton to do so this year. But seeing it burn through the darkness clearly felt monumental to the people below. Our social media selves are ever more crafted and curated, but these recordings captured, accidentally, something intimate and exposed about the people who took them. Each voice expressed a transcendent moment of raw emotion. There were the gleeful voices, the ones so thrilled and confused that they couldn’t seem to stop talking, and the ones whose amazement and exhilaration exploded into laughter, sometimes as the videos showed them running toward the lights.

Others carried such incandescent awe that I don’t know how to describe it, other than to say that it suffused their voices with tenderness. What they said was quiet and ordinary — “Oh, my gosh,” or “That’s beautiful,” or “What am I seeing?” — but it was also alive and overwhelmed and reverent. You couldn’t help loving them a little, just for the depth of feeling in their voices, for how fully they had allowed themselves to be overtaken by the strangeness of this unknowable and humbling thing far above them. By pointing their cameras upward, they unintentionally captured themselves.

One of my favorite videos was taken in Oregon. As it begins, the camera is pointed at a tree, where fireballs are just starting to emerge from behind the branches. The audio is loud with the throbbing of frogs, and the person recording seems very much tethered to the planet he’s on. He doesn’t say much in the video. Just a single word, actually, but it feels as if he puts his whole moved and confused self into it, and in doing so recreates an ancient and primal moment. Down here on Earth, surrounded by frogs, he looks up to the sky and asks, “What?”


Source photographs: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images; Heritage Art/Heritage Images, via Getty Images; Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket, via Getty Images; screen grabs from Twitter.

Brooke Jarvis is a contributing writer for the magazine. Some of her features have been about what Covid-19 has taught us about the science of smell, Washington’s hectic cherry harvest and young climate activists building a movement.

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