On July 14 I needed a first-rate northern horizon.
Comet C/2020 F3 Neowise would be gleaming low in the north-northwest an hour after sunset, rotating with the celestial sphere and out of view not long after. I’d seen raves online (“Do not miss this!”). And besides, hunting comets has been a keen subset of my astronomy hobby for decades.
Six weeks earlier, after several late-night and predawn forays beginning in late March, I’d finally spotted a different comet, C/2017 T2. It manifested as a small, dim patch of fuzz in my 15x70 binoculars, not even remotely apparent to the unaided eye — a species of quarry only zealots could savor, and a typical cometary experience.
But I was assured that Neowise was special. Shining at fourth magnitude it was easily a naked-eye object, brighter than many of the stars visible in a rural sky.
The day was partly cloudy, but a glance at the weather forecast (and a barometer) indicated a clear night. Not taking any chances, I scaled the 100-feet-tall Side Lake fire tower at dusk. Can’t procure a much better panorama than that.
When I reached the cupola and faced north, I groaned. A last bridgehead of cloud was draped along the north-northwest horizon. The gray mass, fringed with fading orange, hovered in precisely the wrong spot. Had the privilege of the tower been neutralized?
At 10:05 p.m. I began scanning with the formidable glass of the 15x70s. I stalked just above the treacherous band of cloud. Nothing. Anyone who’s searched for comets has known disappointment. Many recall the hype (entire books were written) preceding the return of Halley’s famous comet in 1986. It didn’t fizzle exactly, but never approached the splendor that astounded the world in 1910, when it spanned most of the sky, was visible during the day, and inspired apocalyptic fever dreams. The earth passed through Halley’s tail and farm families retreated into tornado shelters, frightened by claims the cometary gas could poison our planet.
Searching for Neowise, I spent 20 minutes periodically gridding the north-northwest horizon — side-to-side, up and down, taking breaks to admire Jupiter and Saturn rising in the southeast, and noting familiar stars and constellations snapping into view with last light fading.
As darkness develops, objects leap into visibility. A threshold is attained for any given brightness, and what is imperceptible one moment is suddenly revealed a second later.
At 10:27 p.m., the comet — in full glory — materialized in the lenses, 5 degrees above the clouds. I whooped. The hype was redeemed.
The coma, or head, was intensely luminous; the tail fanned out in a gentle arc, the pressure and heat of mere sunlight fashioning a feather of star dust saturating my field of view. The impression was of a hot, blazing rocket, but comets sustain the icy cold of deep space. Even so, the frozen primordial matter being peeled away by solar wind looked like the pure white product of a forge.
For the next half-hour I relished the rarity, and the surprise. We average only one prominent comet per decade. Unlike Halley and other short-period comets, Neowise blew in from “nowhere,” calculated to be on a 6,800-year orbit around the sun, last visiting our neighborhood at the dawn of human civilization. Nobody wrote it down.
Just after 11 p.m. I eased down the 126 steps of the fire tower, then paused on the center-line of County Road 5 and looked north. Naked-eye, the comet was a white slash bracketed by tall pine forest on either side of the road. It was a beckoning tableau, as if the pavement steered for the sky through a tunnel of trees and the comet was within reach.
I stood transfixed. Sure, I was glad for the tower, and certainly appreciative of the lenses, but there on the highway I enjoyed the most compelling phase of the spectacle, when the celestial traveler seemed linked to earth.
The reputation of comets as harbingers of doom or revival, explicitly connected to human events, is well known. Who isn’t drawn to portents and omens? We understand that comets are essentially “dirty snowballs” composed of rocky ice and dust, and relatively insubstantial. Indeed, the National Geographic Society once described them as “ … the nearest thing to nothing that anything can be and still be something.”
And yet, when I heard of the unexpected arrival of a bright comet my first thought was: of course, it’s 2020. We are mired in a baneful pandemic unlike anything endured for a century, parsing our lives into 14-day increments of health and survival — or not. As of this writing, 150,000 Americans have died, with no end immediately apparent. Against this sobering backdrop, we’re suffering domestic unrest over racial injustice, the global economy is severely strained, tensions between the United States and China are escalating, and our looming November election is seen by many — left and right — as an existential, do-or-die moment of truth.
All these challenges (and more) demand attention, action — but we cannot be always on red alert, at the barricades, hypervigilant, hypersensitive. We must also play and dream. Otherwise we’ll sooner or later collapse into a bitter vortex of angst and be of little use to anyone. The first rule for all is “do no harm,” and that includes to ourselves. No one contributes by crashing and burning.
Seeking and witnessing the comet was an intentional, joyous frolic. Its beauty was inspiriting (and bipartisan) and though I’m familiar with the physics I also enjoyed an indulgent flight of fancy. I thought, why do I feel so uplifted? What is the message of this comet? I’m capable of ascribing meaning if I choose, so what does Neowise mean?
I choose revival. Listen: the comet is a herald of magnificent transformation. I allowed the view of Neowise from the center-line of County Road 5 to assure me that we have a clear route to a metaphorical heaven. The comet beckons to a loftier plane, to acknowledge and celebrate what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
They are often evoked in play, when we set aside the axes we’re grinding and revisit the wonder, optimism, and uninhibited rumpus of childhood. Mark Twain, whose birth and death were bracketed by Halley’s comet, wrote, “When I’m playful I use the meridians of longitude and the parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales. I scratch my head with the lightning and purr myself to sleep with the thunder.”
Prose poetry of a high order, and resonant with rejuvenating gladness and useful whimsy. It’s a mind-set we call recreation. Such imagining can keep us in touch with sanity.
So, washed in starlight on a mild summer evening, I passed through the looking glasses. I strode the highway between the pines to the comet, and straddling the shimmering tail I rode it toward the sun and a dazzling tomorrow. Popping into view just ahead I saw John Muir, that tough and intrepid wanderer of wilderness. He called out, “All things move in music and write it. The mouse, lizard, and grasshopper sing together on the Turlock sands, sing with the morning stars.”
Why not? It’s my choice, my portent. I’ll get back to work in the morning.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books.