Blogging in E minor
Usually just a bunch of silly crap.

Totality

eclipse2017-1024x576I was beginning to think that my “umbral greed” may have cost me a spectacular experience.

My wife and I had traveled to southwest Illinois via 50 miles of road-less-traveled cornfield thoroughfares in an effort to gain about an extra minute of darkness during the Aug. 21, 2017 solar eclipse. We came to rest on a levee outside of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, just 5 miles from the center-stripe of the 70-mile wide swath of totality, placing us in the “fat” part of the Moon’s shadow. I wanted an unobstructed panoramic view of the horizon, and our present location had provided this.

What remained in question was cloud cover. During the forty-minute wait leading up to the big event, about 30 were spent under the shadows of thick cumulus clouds that had made their way into the area. During occasional breaks, my wife and I were able to view the progress of the Moon across the face of the Sun by viewing images projected through 20170821_130645tiny holes in a colander upon a white banker-box lid.  But for the most part, we waited out the slow moving clouds for the next precious break. The ten or so carloads of folks with us on the levee did pretty much the same thing. Some had solar glasses and provided commentary from afar.

At 12:47 I saw a flock of hundreds of birds flying eastbound in formation. They passed our location before a small pack took an abrupt turn northwards towards us. The flock collapsed upon itself and turned several times, giving the appearance of a particulate orb expanding and contracting and flowing like an acid rock oil slide projection. Could this be an example of strange animal behavior preceding natural phenomenon? Or were the birds simply investigating the unusual human presence on otherwise vacant corn fields?

At about T minus 10 minutes, the sun peered out beside a thick, dark, slow-moving bank of clouds. I noted that the clouds were moving northbound, which was unusual. I then observed that sections were moving in different directions and different speeds at various elevations. The colander projections revealed the Sun in crescent phase. The ambient temperatures seemed to have cooled a bit. If the clouds were to move two degrees to the east, there would be no way the Sun would emerge from the other side in time for us to observe totality. At this point, it seemed we had a 50/50 chance of obstruction.

I then said a prayer: “God, I know we are not supposed to pray for things for ourselves. But can you give me a pass on this one?”

20170821_131620At about 13:16 CDT, less than two minutes prior to occultation, I noticed the Sun boxed in on three sides by clouds with clear skies to the south. I snapped a selfie, hoping to catch an image of the Moon with the camera. Nothing doing. Less than 90 seconds away and viewing quality was still in question. The game of minutes and degrees played on as I told my wife we might just be in for luck.

Suddenly, a swell of excitement propagated through the crowd like a slinky. “Look at the ground!” My wife shrieked. “. . . all the shadows on the ground!”

I was amazed by water-like, fast-moving shadows racing eastward over the bleached gravel at our feet. . . faint, slithering, and mysterious. They resembled the reflection of pool water upon the overhang of a house, but in a hurry to get somewhere.

I attempted to take video, only to be immediately distracted by swiftly darkening skies, the appearance of sunset, and increasing excitement around me. I turned my phone 180 degrees to capture the orange and purple horizon accented by puffy clouds. I raised my eyes upwards and noticed Venus to the west of the Sun, which, carefully observed in my screen, was the slimmest of crescents obscured by a very old moon. “There it is!” I shouted. “And there’s Venus!”

At 13:17:44 the new moon completely covered the Sun, exposing the star’s majestic corona in all its glory! “Take your glasses off!” shouted one of our neighbors to his children.

20170821_161740For two minutes and thirty-eight seconds my wife and I stood in strange darkness immersed in the cosmological enormity of the event. I attempted a few pictures, but recalling the advice of an eclipse chaser, I focused on my surroundings and experiencing the moment. I would have access to the work of better equipped photographers later. I snapped a selfie with my wife and abandoned the effort.

The sky had a whole unreal feel about it; the oh-so-familiar Sun and the Moon – relatively unchanged over my 50-year lifespan – were revealed in a whole new light, briefly transformed by the rare celestial crossing.

I looked hard for Mercury and Mars in the vicinity of the Moon/Sun metamorphism. They could not be found. An expert in an interview had stated they were probably too close in angular separation to the Sun to be seen. I looked for Jupiter to no avail, likely obscured by cloud cover in the east. The bugs in the nearby woods were abuzz with activity.

eclipseThe moment was brief, but not too short. The extra 58 seconds gained from the hour-long car ride proved so worth it. There was time to examine, to take mental notes, and to lose oneself.

“It’s weird how the clouds all disappeared” somebody observed. She was right! Mere minutes earlier, the sky was nearly covered in clouds. Now stage center was cloud-free at least 30 degrees in every direction.

“They did!” I affirmed, “the clouds just disappeared!”

“Omigod!”

Was this a miraculous answer to my pathetic prayer? Or was this a natural phenomenon caused by abrupt atmospheric cooling? Regardless, I was greatly moved by whatever it was.

60-03_diamond_ringI was treated to an additional 15-20 seconds of totality after my internal clock told me it was nearing completion. I watched closely until the first flash of raw sunlight peered behind the moon’s limb at about a one o’clock position. This, coupled with the fading corona, created the celebrated “diamond ring” illusion. I turned my unprotected eyes away.

The skies lit back up as if a by a slow-warming fluorescent bulb. Sunrise vanished quickly and the serpentine ground shadows rushed back the other way. Within about 45 seconds, it was over. We had experienced dusk and dawn all within a five-minute measure.

As bugs settled down, the humans continued to chirp on in excitement for a brief while, those with protective glasses watching the retreating moon pass over the Sun’s surface. I bounded around like an excited child, as impressed by the cloud-clearing miracle as much as anything else I had witnessed

I had been fascinated by space, particularly orbital dynamics, ever since I was a child. My fascination with astronomy was one thing that inspired me to become a teacher in the first place.

I remember the times dragging nieces and nephews out to cornfields in the middle of the night to gaze upon Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings, and various nebulae and galaxies that populated the heavens. I remember the disappointment produced by the dud comet Kohoutec, the optimism spawned by Hale-Bopp, and the explosive intensity of the more noteworthy meteor showers I’ve viewed throughout the years. There was a rare annular eclipse over St. Louis 23 years ago, which paled in comparison to this awe-inspiring event.

solar eclipse 2The experience was spiritual – personal, while at the same time universal – giving the American contingent of the human race a moment to pause, put our divisions aside, and have a humongous block party in our own end of the universe. Everyone will have his or her own story to tell.

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