The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 12, 2018

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The Regionalist: Ohio’s Backyard Scientist
Bill Kauffman - 04/22/09
starry sky

The moon’s mild ray has e’er bewitched me, but ne’er was a man more poorly suited to a life of science. Carbon, ions, gametes, the Doppler Effect: I can’t think of a single chemical or physical phenomenon that I have ever really understood.

Yet we are often drawn to things we can’t possibly comprehend, aren’t we? I love to sit out back of a summer’s eve, libation in hand, and watch the moon trace its slow and steady arc across the zodiac. I could not care less that a handful of government employees have bounded along its surface, and I abhor the thought that the American (or any other) Empire may one day deface our natural satellite with a military base. The moon, like the haggard ex-looker in the Raymond Chandler novel, is best seen at a distance.

So too believed Leslie Peltier (1900–1980) of Delphos, Ohio, whom Harvard College Observatory director Harlow Shapley called “the world’s greatest non-professional astronomer.” Peltier’s memoir Starlight Nights (1965) is quite simply the best book ever written on the romance of the night sky, and how apt that the foreword to its latest paperback incarnation is by David H. Levy, a worthy heir to the great Peltier.

I had the pleasure five years ago of spending an April twilight interviewing Levy, the foremost comet-hunter of our age (he has twenty-two to his credit) at his home-based Jarnac Observatory in Vail, Arizona. After our chat we looked at Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. This was like shooting baskets with Michael Jordan, trading obscene limericks with Jason Peters, or drinking with my friends the Sheehans. You don’t belong on the same court (or bar) with ’em, but you’re sure happy to be there.

Among Levy’s books are a volume on astronomical poetry (More Things in Heaven and Earth, 1997) and a fine biography of another small-town astronomer, Clyde Tombaugh of Burdett, Kansas, who discovered Pluto in 1930 at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, that redoubt of poetical eccentricity and wide-eyed wonder endowed by the Brahmin Percival Lowell, who saw canals on Mars (and who am I to say he didn’t?).

Leslie Peltier had no such illusions, but then he didn’t need to conjure up superlunary utopias. He was, writes Levy, a “shy and retiring man who loved his Delphos, Ohio, home so much that he rarely left it.”

Starlight Nights is as much about Peltier’s life on Ohio ground as it is about his explorations of Ohio skies. “Blessed are those who are raised on a farm,” is Peltier’s addition to the Beatitudes. His family farm consisted of fifty acres of corn, wheat, oats, and clover, an orchard of fruit trees, and a few cows that young Leslie kept half an eye on whilst swimming in the Auglaize River, memorizing “Thanatopsis,” playing his fife, and hunting English sparrows with his air rifle (“A plague on all these foreign imports!”). His room in the Peltier farmhouse was the outdoors brought inside, adorned with his collections of butterflies, Indian arrowheads, insects, and rocks. The social life of Delphos was defined by “Granges, Ladies Aids and country churches,” though its economy, unhappily, was later distorted by “price supports, allotments, and controls.”

At age fifteen a question occurred to Leslie that has occurred to many others who have looked upward into the night sky: “Why do I not know a single one of those stars?” A wise librarian in Delphos gave the curious boy Martha Evans Martin’s The Friendly Stars, and within the year he had come to know Vega, Deneb, Antares, Capella, and the other stellar lights. Leslie Peltier was a classic American autodidact. He dropped out of high school to work on the family farm when his older brother went off to Europe to make the world safe for democracy, and Leslie never did return to school, for “life on the farm was so pleasant, so independent and so complete that I had no desire to give it up.”

With eighteen dollars hard-earned from picking strawberries, Leslie purchased a little mail-order telescope for which he rigged up a mounting, the first in his series of do-it-yourself telescopic exhibitions of Buckeye ingenuity. A four-inch scope soon followed. As a teenager he began recording his observations of variable stars, compiled in the cow pasture in which he set up the instrument, his skywatching scored by crickets, owls, and bullfrogs. “Cows are friendly folk and have a great sense of curiosity,” learned Peltier. “They often would come over and keep me company during my long hours at the telescope . . . slowly chewing their cuds and watching me thoughtfully with their big soft eyes.”

Frost and dew and chill winds were among the inconveniences kept at bay when Leslie and his dad built an observatory (which the neighbors mistook for a chicken house), though he regretted that “I now had lost my common touch with all the other denizens of the night”—the fireflies, the chirping insects, and, to his sorrow, “my gallery of cows [which] deserted me completely.”

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