If you look up to the night sky this week, you may be lucky enough to catch The Lyrid Meteor shower. The Lyrids are one of the oldest recorded meteor showers known to man, first noted in 687 B.C in China as stars ‘falling like rain’, they have fascinated people for generations. Yet this spectacular outburst of shooting stars illuminating the constellation Lyra, is a simple by-product of two paths intersecting.
The Lyrids occur when the Earth, on it’s annual journey around the sun, crosses the orbital path of Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1 Thatcher to give it its full name). Thatcher is a long period comet, taking nearly 420 years to complete one orbit of the sun, so wide is its route. This means, it last approached the sun in 1861 – the year it was first observed by A. E. Thatcher – and it hasn’t been seen since. But we know it’s out there, and every year the Earth passes through the debris from its trail, left behind from that last journey. As the comet’s dust burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, it creates the colourful ‘shooting stars’ of the Lyrids.
In April 1915 a lecturer at the Leeds Astronomical Society, discussing the beauty of the summer constellations, noted that there had been a remarkable increase of interest in astronomy. This was, he contented, a by-product of the war. The Yorkshire Post reported that:
‘The darkened streets had made the stars more conspicuous, and people, owing to the habit of scanning the skies for unfriendly aircraft, had begun to take more notice of the stars’.
Towards the end of the month, Earth approached it’s intersection with the path of Thatcher as it had done annually for millennia. Oblivious to the war raging on the surface of our little planet, the Lyrids would scatter across the sky, causing some confusion in Yorkshire where they were mistaken for the lights of enemy airships. The Lyrids were reported in newspapers in Britain throughout the war, sandwiched between articles updating the public on events at the front. In 1915 this included John French’s report on the fighting to the North East of Ypres, a visit by the King and Queen to St Dunstan’s Home for Blind Soldiers in Regent’s Park, and a sketch of Admiral Jellicoe – a man of ‘patience, good humour and confidence, not formidable with the thunderous gloom of Lord Kitchener’…. (make of that what you will!)
In 1916 The Scotsman reported the brilliance of the Lyrids next to a two column list of British Casualties. Here the juxtaposition struck me – the permanence, the reliability of the annual sight of material 4.6 billion years old extinguishing in our atmosphere; next to the fragility and briefness of life on Earth. This resonates in the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves in, in April 2020 as the Lyrids approach once again.
As a result of the current pandemic, our lives have been severely disrupted, so as to become almost unfamiliar. Many of us are finding ourselves unable to visit the battlefields this summer, perhaps for the first time in many years. These are not so much holidays, but pilgrimages. With a history that began with veterans and the bereaved, people are now drawn to the battlefields for a myriad of reasons.
Some travel to commemorate, educate or learn, but for others, it is a spiritual journey with a far wider breadth. The resonance of a dark period in our history has in many ways become a shining light – the permanence of the Silent Cities as reliable as the Lyrids’ annual display. What was highlighted as fleeting and fragile in print in 1915 now in some ways, provides an anchor in troubled times. Though at present we cannot travel to the Old Front Line, the spirit of the pilgrimage does not change, it is something that remains with us to be drawn upon when we need it.
In the introduction to a book recounting the British Legion’s Great Pilgrimage of 1928, the author notes that the pilgrims all
‘..found unity in something greater even than the discipline of war and, on the very scenes of their kinsmen’s sacrifice, renewed afresh their consecration to the ideal for which it was made’
‘Something greater’ – whatever that means to you – I think, is the key to finding a path through these difficult times. When I look towards the night sky, and I see the Lyrids (hopefully tonight) I will think of the men who lie now in the Silent Cities who perhaps looked skyward in 1915 and saw them too. And I will be reminded that ‘something greater’ will always tie us together.