A Supernova in my Backyard

My neighbor’s tree fell down some months back.  It was as if it had just gotten tired of standing there between our houses and leaned over onto our roof, filling the kitchen window with wet pine boughs.  After the gardener cut the spent leaner into logs the view was bleak stucco.

And so we got a new tree and planted it on our side of the fence.  A Charlie Brown tree that, in honor of being not terribly expensive, is also pretty unobtrusive.  The view is of a wisp of young leaves hardly distracting the eye from a field of sad stucco.

And so I took my latest batch of compost and fed the little tree.  So far the little tree has not grown an inch, but a late summer volunteer tomato has sprung up.

Sometimes we get lost and find things we weren’t seeking.


There is a supernova in the pinwheel galaxy right now.  The last one to occur in our celestial hood was in the 1970s.

Tonight is the last bright night for us to see this harbinger of who-knows-what, although it actually happened twenty-one-million years ago and took the light until now to get here.  “Nova” means new (named because a suddenly “new” star in 1572 caused Tycho Brahe to realize the celestial realm was not fixed and unchanging, as previously thought, thus changing human understanding of the cosmos).  Ironically, a supernova happens when a star is not new so much as so old that it collapses upon itself and massively explodes.  It is new in the sense that it can mark the creation of new planets and stars; and if a supernova is big enough, a black hole may form at the center—something new out of which nothing escapes, not even light.

The day after the supernova was discovered via the Palomar telescope in San Diego there was an enormous power outage from San Diego to Mexico to Arizona.

Darkness is the perfect place from which to see the stars.

The Pinwheel Galaxy, and the supernova it contains, is located just off the handle of the big dipper, which is also known as Ursa Major or the Great Bear.

Ancient Hindu legend saw the seven stars of the big dipper as seven sages, and it was said that there were two other invisible stars near the handle—and if you could see them you would have a long life.  This supernova and its Pinwheel Galaxy might temporarily fit the description of one of those generally invisible stars.

Both ancient Hebrews and Native Americans saw the seven stars as a bear circling the North Star.  This makes me think of Tarantino and “the Jew Bear” in Inglourious Basterds.  And it made me think of the recurring bears in my dreams.

In any event, it was late Friday evening when instead of going to sleep, I thought I would go outside and look at the big dipper.  I was too lazy to pull the telescope out of the garage and my eyes were tired and I thought it would suffice to look in the direction of the seven-stared bear and just know that a supernova was burning bright.

The LA sky was misty and I could hardly see a single star between clouds.  So I stared in the vicinity of the big dipper and suddenly noticed something very strange:  three glowing lights beyond a rustling palm tree.  They suddenly went black.  Then they glowed bright once again.

I took them for hovering helicopters out over the 101 Freeway, but when I moved laterally to take the palm tree out of my sightline the helicopters seemed to move directly behind the palm tree.  One of them seemed to shoot a light down toward the ground and they all went dark again.

I was tired and thinking myself a little crazy, but the lights seemed to be coming directly from the palm tree itself.  They glowed bright again and I came closer.  Standing below the tree I could now see that electric wires were rubbing the wind-driven fronds and they were burning—embers glowing and then going out again.

I called DWP who did not seem concerned.  The tree was technically my rear-facing neighbor’s, but it’s LA and I don’t know them and knocking on their door at midnight seemed like an LA don’t.

So I hung up with DWP, planning to go to bed and tell my neighbors in the morning.  Instead I woke Andy just to be sure I wasn’t seeing things.  After all, in our old duplex a palm tree had caught fire in the yard along with our rear-facing neighbor’s garage—maybe it had been wires.  Andy thought the sparks actually did look dangerous.  At least I knew I wasn’t imagining things.

Wavering between the wish for sleep and the fear that I would blow this off and wake to the great LA fire—with me as a newly minted Margaret O’Leary, I called the DWP again and suggested that I did in fact want a crew to come and look at the sparking tree.

I awoke at 1:30am to the phone letting me know the crew was out front.  I let two men into my garden, supernova flashlights of their own and hard-hats.  They were perfectly nice and matter of fact, gazing up at the glowing tree along side Agnes, our dog, and me.

They explained the math:  7,000 volts in the wire, 2,500 in the ground, the current trying to use the tree to ground the electricity, the palm too dry to carry the current and too wet to catch full fire, something about missing 5,000 volts.  I still couldn’t see the big bear or the Pinwheel Galaxy, and I had little idea about what these archetypal nocturnal emergency men were saying beyond, “We’ll have a crew come out,” and “It’s not going to catch fire tonight.”

I fell back asleep and dreamed about being up in the wires and trying to climb down.  And by the way, Kenneth, what is the frequency?

Sometimes we are looking for trouble when there is none there; other times we’re just looking at the stars and find trouble.  I thought that if it had been a real danger, it would have been a supernova from twenty-one million years ago that I could not actually see that ended up allowing me to see an otherwise overlooked spark.

It makes me think of the sparks and slivers of our tattered universe and the idea of gathering those shards personal to ourselves as we collectively put them together to repair the original vessel that shattered, in at least one myth, in the creation of the cosmology in which we dwell.  Perhaps we’re all following the drinking gourd on our way to true freedom, the freedom to love.

But then again, I’m not necessarily a reliable narrator, so in a day or two the tree will have been engulfed in flame and the supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy will have saved Los Angeles from destruction.  And it will have all happened on my very own Mulberry Street (if you know your more arcane Seuss).

Meanwhile I wish upon the supernova and the burning palm alike that we might find strength and spirit as we make our collective transition from an age of terror to an age of lights we hadn’t noticed, lights that aren’t so much dangerous as navigational, lights that sparkle quietly in the eyes of every child and every volunteer tomato.

Namaste, BD



6 Responses to “A Supernova in my Backyard”

  1. Lesley Says:

    Reminds me of the burning bush, too . . . perhaps Moses should have called the DWP. Maybe the tree that was too dry to ground and too wet to burn was also a messenger from the gods – a reminder to be present, to be alert . . . the magical and the mundane wrapped up in a single moment

  2. Katrina Kenison Says:

    You are one fine storyteller — a reliable enough narrator for me. A bit of literary license always welcome in service to larger truths.

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    This was lovely and quirky and the most satisfying mix of mythical, mystical, and grounded – with or without the missing 5,000 volts.

    I’m glad you called in the middle of the night. Among other things, you (and the supernova) may have prevented the next Great Fire, but you also birthed the most recent meaningful tale.

  4. Wolf Pascoe Says:

    I salute your celestial ambition.

    There’s a passage in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son where the narrator is out wandering on a snowy night and has a vision of some angels but as he gets closer discovers he’s looking at a drive-in movie screen.

    Come to think of it, is there a drive-in near where you live?

  5. suzicate Says:

    I love learning interesting new tidbits of information…I never new about the Hindu legend of the seven stars/stages of the Big Dipper…thank you for sharing that. And a volunteer tomato plant is always welcome!

  6. rachelfiske Says:

    this is storytelling at its finest–it is grand and minute, living and dying, disparate circles coming back in to close on themselves.

    really, i just loved this.

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