Every person has an arbitrary origin, a place and tradition it would be easy to inhabit. Others choose to break away and be carried along by the unforeseen currents of life. Or is this dichotomy far too simple? In what ways are things more complicated than this? Irrational human passions and a sense of vocation are always tangled, in ways that seem ambiguous at the time and afterward inevitable. Let us consider the case of Charles Dillon Perrine.
Perrine’s origin was Steubenville, Ohio, a town first built to protect government surveyors mapping the land west of the Ohio River. Later it would be referred to as La Belle City because of its wide streets and sympathetic French influenced architecture. Here, in a modest but comfortable apartment, Perrine was born, the descendant of family with earthly concerns and worldly means. One of his ancestors was a man called The Huguenot, the founder of a Calvinist colony in Staten Island. Another was referred to by historians as “a merchant prince of ante-bellum days”.
But Perrine chose to turn his eye not to earth but the heavens. He spent his formative twenties and thirties at the Lick Observatory in California, where he helped observe “superluminal motion” in the nebulous clouds surrounding the bright nova Persei, and discovered two of Jupiter’s moons. He also met the observatory librarian Bell Smith, and the two married in Philadelphia. The first few days back in California were spent in bliss, not at Perrine’s home on 211 Clay Street in San Francisco, but at the nearby Hermosa Beach.
Among the photos in the observatory archives attributed to him, there is one that has nothing to do with the skies. A black dog runs down a hill, delighted by the crispness of the snow and the clear day. One imagines Perrine took the photo while walking with Bell, a momento of their love. Crystals of snow gleam in the image like stars.
Perrine traveled to Spain a few days after the wedding, taking a boat from New York. He wanted to watch an eclipse of the sun. Bell came with him, and helped develop his photos. They set up a temporary observatory and lived together. Perrine was nervous about achieving a good negative. “I want everything to run like clockwork,” he wrote in his journal. He was able to obtain the process the film as he liked without problems, both the eclipse and other phenomena. One image of a solar eruption shows a smear of white, a mauve glow.
Perrine went on four eclipse expeditions, including to Sumatra. There he kept a diary of his travels. The journey appears to have been relaxed. “The early morning, from daylight to nine o’clock, sees the men promenading the decks or lounging about in pajamas and loose slippers,” he wrote. “There is no rising call or call for breakfast. One rises when he pleases (usually early, to take advantage of the coolest part of the day), bathes and breakfasts at will.” In Padang, Perrine took detailed notes on the bureaucracy, food and city. “The streets of Padang make no more pretensions to being straight than elsewhere in the Orient, but wind about in ways most confusing to the resident of a right-angled republic,” he complained. But he concluded that “this little-visited corner of the world offers an attractive field for the traveler who cares to go off the beaten paths.”
At the Argentine National Observatory, Perrine dedicated his time as director to counting the number of extragalactic nebulae. He also set up a huge telescope in Bosque Alegre. Thirteen comets bear his name today, discoveries or co-discoveries. He remained with Bell all his life, and never stopped visiting California. One curious work he wrote at Hermosa Beach while on vacation is called “On the Cause of Green Ray Seen at Sunset”.
Perrine died in Villa General Mitre, a town eighty kilometers from the observatory today called Villa del Totoral. The town was once home to the Comechingone people, but now is known to visitors mostly because of the summer house rented by Rafael Alberti and Pablo Neruda. Bell stayed with him to the end. Their ending place may seem arbitrary, but is the logical consequence of anticipated and unanticipated choices made during their life journeys.
Visiting the town now, I think of Charles and Bell as I look at the paintings of Octavio Pinto, a local painter. In them, color has been applied in a deeply felt way: like love and vocation, it is simultaneously the product of chance and the result of an invisible but absolutely necessary logic. Every dab of paint lands precisely where it needs to be.