Tag Archives: astronomical events

Totality missed my backyard, but the eclipse was kinda magical anyway

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I’m a sucker for things astronomical. That’s why it made perfect sense for me to drive for nine or 10 hours to a friend’s home in the middle of Oregon, and endure a party with a bunch of strangers (lovely people, I’m sure, but I don’t do parties and I was dreading it), and sleep in a tent despite vowing never to do such a thing again the last time I did it, and then spend a day hanging around because I didn’t want to drive back in traffic, and then the next day drive back home in traffic because I wouldn’t be the only one waiting until the day after the eclipse to hit the highway … in order to spend a little over two minutes experiencing totality. That was the plan. At the last minute I had to cancel, thereby maintaining an unbroken record of celestial events that don’t quite live up to expectations.

Take the Perseids. No, first, take the showers of shooting stars that light up the nights over the South African bushveld. I know about these because my grandparents had a farm in the Northern Transvaal, and every year we visited them and all the adults would sit around after dinner, staring at the sky and going ooh while I sulked and wondered what the heck they were going on about. By the time someone figured out I needed glasses, the old folks had sold the farm.

Okay, so now you can take the Perseids … and do what you want with them. I’m not going to talk about them in this post – I meant to, but I just realized I already did so here, and I have nothing to say about this year’s shower because it was rendered invisible by the smoke sent our way courtesy of forest fires in Alberta, Canada. Turns out I’ve also already discussed comets and harvest moons (speaking of which, the next supermoon is on December 3. Wheeeee! I’ve put it in my planner! I will pack a picnic supper and drag the Hubbit out for a romantic drive in the country!) – so … moving on to the most recent celestial event…

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I could find a picture of the moon or meteors or the Milky Way, but I’d rather stay close to the earth for now. Here’s a picture of sunset over the Columbia, from our veranda. Just another amazing thing the sun can do.

… the Great American Eclipse of 2017. It happened, and I was there.

It started here at 9.09AM. I was busy with an urgent email so I didn’t watch the beginning, but my desk faces a large window overlooking our pastures, and beyond them the Columbia. While I was working I watched the world slowly go dim.

I got the urgent out of the way and focused on the important. I found my magic eclipse glasses and grabbed a sleeping bag and scurried out to the backyard. The light was still bright enough that I thought the sun must be only half covered, but when I lay down and looked up I saw there was only a narrow crescent of sun showing.

The air was chilly, and it was very quiet. I switched my view back and forth between the shrinking sliver of sun and the world around me. The light was strange … not gloomy the way it gets when there are fires and the sun glares through smoke like an angry red eye and the horizon squeezes up too close. It was like normal light, but there was too little of it. It felt alien. I thought that might be what sunlight is like on Mars.

When the eclipse peaked at 10.24AM, the sun was about 98% covered.

I had an almost irresistible urge to sing “How great thou art”, but I did resist because I couldn’t remember the words, and there was no way I was about to take my eyes off the heavens to look them up on my cell phone.

No matter how carefully I watched I couldn’t see the movement of the moon across the sun. I couldn’t see the crescent growing, only that it had become bigger, apparently without going through any process of change.

The Hubbit came wandering up from wherever he’d been puttering around doing farmerly things, and complained that the eclipse had been a non-event because insufficiently dark. I could have got up after that, and got on with the this and that of daily life, and occasionally glanced through windows to see the light return.

But I wanted to watch the bright come back. I lay on my sleeping bag spread out on the grass as the crescent embiggened and the air warmed. I heard birds discussing the return of day. In the veggie garden Mr. Roo crowed, and he and his girls began a conversation about the grapes just ripening in their arbor. I became toasty, then uncomfortably hot. The heat roused the flies and they became annoying, and still I watched. The crescent became fat, became Miss Pacman, became an imperfect disc with one rough edge. And then I missed the actual moment of parturition because I got sweat in my eye. Maybe some things aren’t meant to be seen.

Marmeee waving to train - Hover Park

If you need to see a picture of the eclipse, go find your own. I was looking through my photo album for something of a heavenly nature to illustrate this post, and I found this one of the Marmeee waving at a freight train. Because that’s who she was – someone who waved at trains just because she liked them, and never mind whether anyone waved back.

Later on Facebook I saw a cellphone video a friend had posted some miles south of here, just inside the path of totality. You can’t see anything on the video but a glaring dot, but you can hear the voices of other watchers. They murmur and chat for a few minutes, and then the dot dims suddenly. There are whoops and hollers, and someone nearby – it may have been my friend – says, “Holy crap! Wow! It doesn’t show on video – too bad… oh wow…”

That really pissed me off.

Seriously? What did I miss? What happened while I was looking in the other direction? What?

I’m going to have to stay off Facebook for at least two days to avoid being tormented by all the brags and pictures.

There are two more eclipses in 2019 – a total eclipse across South America in July, and an annular eclipse in December that crosses India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Guam (if it’s still there). The Girl Child was all gung ho to meet me in the Andes, but since both happen in winter it’ll have to be the one near the equator.

If I don’t make that one, a more conveniently located total eclipse will scoot up from Mexico to Maine during April 2024. It’s already promising to be bigger and better than today’s.

I hope we’re still here.

Do you have an eclipse experience to share? And is it just me, or is there something in your life that gets you all wound up, so that your friends just look pitying – and if so how well do you do at fully enjoying it?

 

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Lights in the sky … they pass me by

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The moon did a beautiful thing last night. It bulged hugely over the horizon, as immense and awe-inspiring as the Great Pumpkin Himself, and then slid majestically into the earth’s shadow, where it lingered and glowed with an unearthly radiance…

Supermoon (source)

Supermoon (source)

… which is pretty much what you’d expect, given that the moon is off in space and not, in fact, on earth. But I digress. The point of this post is that while this was what I expected, it wasn’t what actually happened. By the time the moon rose over our part of the world it was already pretty well eclipsed. And anyway, I didn’t actually get to see the moon rise, despite having spent the past several days in a fizz of anticipation, because I had to go help someone who had just rescued puppies, and then when I was headed home it suddenly occurred to me that I had to go to Costco because we were out of dog food, and so I hurtled into our house five minutes before moonrise … to find Himself immersed in some or other entirely non-cosmic activity and not ready.

By the time the shouting was done and we were tearing up the road to and into the hills in search of a good viewpoint it was 10 minutes later, but there was still no sign of the bloody moon because the Pacific Northwest is still smoldering and there’s a thick band of smoke along the horizon. (Yes, of course I know the sufferings of the fire victims is way more important than my disappointment at missing an event that won’t happen again until 2033.)

Suddenly I saw a thin slice of moon poised over the river, and Himself pulled off the road and drove a short way through the sagebrush. We got out, and he set up his camera while the dogs moseyed about and I watched the silver sliver slip into darkness. In the cool evening air the fragrance of crushed sagebrush was … well, out of this world.

Then we came home, because we were hungry and also there were critters to feed. I was throwing hay over the fence at the steers when I turned my head and realized that we had a marvelous view of the sullenly glowing eclipse right there. I leaned on the corral fence and watched it for a while, and it was lovely, but I have to tell you I’m getting just a tad bit fed up with the way events of an astronomical nature never quite match up to my expectations, no matter how eagerly I wait, or how carefully I plan.

This isn’t the first moon experience I’ve managed to ditz up. The first time I even heard of the harvest moon was while my parents were visiting in 2008. (I’m sure harvest moons must happen in South Africa, but I never heard of them, growing up in Johannesburg. Was that because no one notices the moon in a big city? Or because the African moon is always spectacular?) For the 2008 harvest moon with my parents I fixed up a picnic supper and we took it down to the river, where we sat on the beach and waited for the moon to rise. And waited. And waited. And I kept telling them it would be worth the wait, because harvest moons are huge. And then up it came, somewhat south of where we were looking, a very pretty but otherwise quite ordinary full moon that had used up all its special effects while it was still behind a nearby hill.

This kind of thing has been happening as long as I remember. Take Halley’s Comet, for instance. I was 14 when my grandmother told me about how its tail swept across the earth in 1910. She described a spangled sky, and light so bright you could read by it if you were soulless enough to look down, and her eyes sparkled at the memory. Later my mother told me my grandmother was only two years old in 1910, but I didn’t care. That conversation was the beginning of a 14 year countdown until it was my turn to witness the glory first hand.

There was a tremendous amount of excitement in the lead-up to Halley’s arrival on February 9th, 1986 (just a few days before my birthday). Every supermarket had shelves full of comet-themed merchandise. My editor sent me on a balloon ride in the Magaliesberg, maybe hoping a close-up view of the comet would inspire Deathless Prose – or, at least, advertising.

The balloon ride was fun, and the champagne breakfast afterwards was even funner … but the comet? Let’s just say it’s good that I’d bought a mug, because the actual comet was a whole lot smaller than the one I had on my kitchen shelf.

I’ll be 102 years old when Halley comes by again. Perhaps Sam Clemens will let me hitch a ride … if I ever write anything more worthy than nonsensical blog posts.

Then there was the year I learned about the Perseid meteor shower in August. (We don’t see this in the southern hemisphere, so I’d never heard of it.) I invited a couple friends to go out for an evening picnic on our jetboat, and I promised “fireworks”. My friend Wonder Woman loves fireworks, so she was pretty excited. So there we were, floating in the middle of the Columbia River at about 10 o’clock at night, full of wine and assorted munchies. Wonder Woman – who is in her eighties – was starting to think about bedtime, and the friend she’d brought with her – who was jet lagged, having arrived from New Zealand just a few days previously – was dozing off, and Himself was muttering fretfully about having to find his way back to shore in the dark.

Wonder Woman turned to me and asked, “Well? When will the fireworks begin?”

“I don’t know!” I replied, scanning the skies with a feeling of impending social doom. “The newspaper said they’d be happening about now. And they’re supposed to be amazing!” I then explained that the promised fireworks, far from being made in China, were being sent direct from the heavenly realms.

“Oh, the Perseids!” she said … and that’s when I learned they came every year and that, when she was younger, she used to enjoy watching them quite often. So we sat and the boat rocked and about 15 meteors zipped across the sky(although not once across the piece of sky I happened to be watching at the time) and then Himself started up the boat and took us home.

I tried again last August while the Girl Child was visiting. We drove up into the hills and found a stretch of dirt road that ran through a cutting that blocked off all light from the town, and we plonked down a blanket and a couple of pillows and lay down on the side of the road. Immediately the breeze that had been bebopping about, playing with our hair, picked up its skirts and blew. So of course I got sand behind my contact lenses, where it commenced grinding my eyeballs. I just got up and got into the car and took the bloody lenses out and put them in my mouth to keep safe, and then I lay back down next to the Girl Child. Every now and then I saw a blurred streak, but in the half hour or so that we lay there until we could no longer ignore the wind, she saw 50. Or maybe it was 100. I forget. What I remember is being there with her in the blustery dark, with rocks pressing up through the blanket and into my spine, mumbling when I spoke because I was scared the wind would blow my contact lenses off my tongue.

It was beautiful.