Don’t be underwhelmed as you search the western skies for Neowise this week. The icy, dust comet that has everyone talking may lack a certain brilliance to the naked eye, but its mere presence in our visual field is quite remarkable, given the vastness of space. At 70 million miles away, it’s pretty cool we can actually see anything.
Space in general is pretty much incomprehensible on a human scale. We have been duped by the artistic images and depictions of quasars, supernovae, Mars Rover images, and movies and TV shows, leaving us to believe that the stars are in reach. Not really. The nearest star may already be burned out, but we won’t know for about 700 years because that’s how long it takes its light to get here. So, seeing this comet, even though it may be a faint, flickering glow at best, is quite a special thing.
Lucky for us, we don’t have to compete with much light pollution. Our friends in nearby northern cities will have a more difficult time seeing it. One trick to viewing the comet is to locate what appears like a flickering star about halfway under the Big Dipper and above the horizon. Then divert your gaze slightly to the side and the glow of its tail will appear. If you look directly at this celestial phenomenon, it’s actually more difficult to see the fan of the tail. This has something to do with the rods and cones in your eyes when you look directly at dim light, but I will let the astronomers and ophthalmologists chime in on the specifics of that. Having binoculars also helps.
People with time-lapse capable cameras have been littering the internet with fabulous photos, but again, don’t be fooled. Their equipment leaves an imprint far more dramatic than the naked eye. Still, it’s worth a walk outside in the late night to see.
Speaking of light pollution, I should mention the elephant in the room. Since the pandemic hit, many of our part-time neighbors have relocated to the valley to shelter in place and have effectively become full-time residents. The influx has, among many things, added to more light pollution. This is not a criticism of anyone’s decision to ride out the pandemic here or relocate for good. After all, who wouldn’t come to their vacation home to find some reprieve from a city experiencing social unrest in a pandemic? I know in the initial phases of the stay at home order there was some local backlash, mostly out of fear that part-time residents would bring the virus to the valley and possibly overwhelm our rural health care system.
While that particular fear can largely be laid to rest, the instantaneous overnight doubling in population has put unforeseen demands on local services in the valley that businesses are grappling to meet. Local shops and grocers are simply slammed, trying to meet the influx of new residents and the added tourists on top. The same is true of local health care clinics, beauty salons and veterinarians. Part-time residents are now needing services locally they normally sought at home. While local service providers are happy to serve anyone who knocks, as no one wants to turn away business, we all need to be cognizant that our local staffing and capacity is maxed out.
Plus, some of these services, given the social distancing and hygiene requirements, are simply running at a lower capacity to address health and safety measures for employees and clients. Local providers are simply not prepared to serve a population that doubled overnight. Whether you are a long-time local or recent transplant, or someone in between, don’t be surprised if there’s a four-plus week wait to see your general practitioner, your cat’s vet, schedule a dentist appointment, and especially get a haircut.
We all need to practice patience in this pandemic. We all need to give the 6 feet of space necessary, not just to avoid transmission, but overnight, our little valley got a lot more crowded. While space may be vast on cosmic scales, we need a little time to adjust the changing inner-space of the valley.