In his first book, Hope is the Thing with Feathers, Christopher Cokinos chronicled extinct or endangered birds and the people who research them, showing us how humans are fascinated by the rare. The Fallen Sky takes us on a similar journey as Cokinos turns his eye to meteorites and the host of famous and quirky characters who searched, and continue to search, for them. He provides a history that is intriguing, comical, and at times heartbreaking as he mixes memoir with captivating research journalism to explore these pieces of sky and the lengths we go to possess them.
Cokinos writes, “Meteorites were inseparable from the people who hunted them, who cherished them, who lost sleep and more over them.” To some, a meteorite represented a potential windfall of money. To others it held the promise of understanding what was beyond them. And to many, including Cokinos, it was possession itself, the weight of ownership, that held mystery and appeal.
Stories of eccentric and morally questionable collectors, students, and champions of otherworldly artifacts populate the book. For instance, we learn of Ellis Hughes, who in 1903 stole a ﬁfteen-ton meteorite from Oregon Iron and Steel Company land by dragging it nearly a mile to his own property. Cokinos describes the “creaking wagon” and planks and capstans Hughes used to painstakingly drag, push, and cajole the enormous rock to his small shed. When he inevitably loses his prize and all his savings in litigation, Cokinos notes that “in your palm, an iron meteorite suggests that gravity has taken on a new and unsettling authority.” For Ellis Hughes, that weight represented the loss of all he once possessed for a chance to own a piece of space.
Such history is compelling enough, but Cokinos also takes great pains to pull his personal life into the mix. Near the end we feel his guilt and his struggle to make sense of his divorce in the midst of these explorations. The ultimate intimation comes in the ﬁnal chapter, when Cokinos takes his biggest step toward the collector’s obsession by traveling to Antarctica on a research expedition. Weeks of homesickness spiral into depression until he ﬁnally requests to leave the team. Here he describes the crevasses of the Queen Elizabeth Range as “gaping like the open gills of some impossible white shark” and sees “a range that snakes beyond my understanding and perhaps beyond my desire to understand.” His defeat is gut-wrenching and real, and it penetrates his worldview. It is this poetic narrative turned both outward and inward that makes this book, like meteorites, a rare ﬁnd.