Looking at the big sky in Western Tidewater

Published 10:11 am Saturday, November 16, 2013

During my early days and nights at The Suffolk News-Herald, I would from time to time deliver a newspaper to late-calling customers who were somehow overlooked by the carriers. On one occasion, I had to drive so far south that the city lights were a dull glow. After handing the gentleman the day’s edition, I commented on how clear the stars appeared.

“This is God’s country,” he said in a way that’s stayed in my memory today.

I agreed, apologized again for the late delivery and headed back downtown, all the while darting my head around to see what reigned above me.

Off and on since then the night sky has beckoned for closer attention.

Another memorable time was in March 1996 when Comet Hyakutake blazed close enough to be seen without a telescope. I could even look out from my driveway and see what appeared to be a frosty star. This propelled me a few times to grab my binoculars and drive westward on 58. Finding a relatively darker sky, I looked up and was filled with wonder.

In the distance, the hum of traffic could still be heard. To me it was the sound of the comet zooming toward its brief rendezvous with the sun before turning around. At one time I thought I heard a low growling. Thankfully, it was just my imagination…or a bear giving forewarning.

Comet Hale-Bopp came through the next month, and I was back out driving here and there after work seeking my fill of celestial beauty.

A new opportunity presents itself with the arrival of Comet ISON, curiously named after the telescope that was used by two Russian astronomers who discovered it.

Like the aforementioned comets, this one reportedly is worth a look-see.

At www.earthsky.org, one suggestion is to find the Big Dipper in the pre-dawn hours this weekend and follow the handle down to Arcturus and then over to Spica, which is in constellation of Virgo. Comet ISON will be above Spica. Binoculars are supposed to be sufficient, but if you have a telescope, all the better.

Much of Western Tidewater is clear of city lights that pollute the night, and this makes the region ideal to view the heavens. That’s a feature of this area that I hope won’t ever diminish.

Allow me to suggest to the Southampton County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors that when it comes to mapping out future growth – and it will happen whether or not anyone likes or needs it – to consider an infrastructure that directs lights downward rather than competing and dimming one’s view of the big sky.

Stephen H. Cowles is the staff writer at The Tidewater News. He promises not to deliberately trepass on anyone’s property to see the comet. He can be contacted at 562-3187 or stephen.cowles@tidewaternews.com