When an out-of-town guest arrives for a visit, it’s an occasion to think about how the life we live might come across to someone who has been away for a while — say, 6,800 years.
What will the visitor think of what we’ve done with the place?
One night last week, the Comet Neowise appeared to be hanging motionless in the sky over Lake Nokomis, devoid of either opinion or activity. Away from city lights it might be visible to the naked eye, but in south Minneapolis we needed binoculars.
James Flaten, associate director of NASA’s Minnesota Space Grant Consortium, says we should all get out there and see Neowise. “People should take advantage of this opportunity,” he said. “You don’t know when you’ll have another one.”
The ancients assigned supernatural meaning to the appearance of a comet, but of course we know better. So what if there was a comet in the sky when Jerusalem was destroyed, or the Normans invaded England, or the assassinated Julius Caesar was awaiting his designation as a god? Those were primitive times, and there was always something dire going on. Not like today.
But try telling that to the Venerable Bede, a monk and historian who lived in England about 1,300 years ago. Bede wrote that a comet meant a change in leadership, or a plague. Or hot, windy weather. Or a war.
If Bede were available to debate the point today, he might ask us about COVID-19, climate change and Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. He might even challenge us to explain George Floyd’s death and the events that followed it. Bede and his colleagues through the ages may have understood something we don’t: that the appearance of a comet, invoking the beauty and mystery of the universe, may be giving us an opportunity to ponder something bigger and more meaningful than ourselves.
A comet is the natural world — make that the natural cosmos — asserting its longevity, in contrast to the eyeblink of our existence. How are we spending the short time we have? There were people in Minnesota the last time Neowise visited, and perhaps even the time before that. Whether we’ll be here the next time is anybody’s guess.