Monday, January 15, 2007

Deus absconditus

I am in the wrong place to see Comet McNaught -- "McNaught the Magnificent," as Fred Schaaf calls it. Fred is an old e-mail pal who is one of the most devout skywatchers on the planet; you may know him from Sky & Telescope Magazine or Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar. I get his comet alerts. Which feed my hopeless comet watch.

Here on the Tropic of Cancer the horizon tilts up to hide the comet. Still, every evening at sunset I'm standing on the stoop (with sundowner drink in hand) scanning the western horizon. What do I expect to see? Well, nothing, really. But I look anyway. Maybe a glimpse of the comet's tail stretching up and away from the western glow.

But no comet. The time is not wasted. Some spectacular sunsets. The high silver gleams of airliners making their way from South America to the States, or vice versa, dragging long contrails behind them and catching the rays of a Sun that is below my horizon -- artificial comets of a sort. These are Maxfield Parrish moments, when tropical nature spills out an unworldly palette of colors suffused with hints of cobalt blue and gold.

"What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well," says Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince to his pilot. For a week, Comet McNaughton has been my hidden well.