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How a Burst of Light in the Sky Illuminated Something Primal

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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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