By Robin Pierson, Special to the Independent
We could see and feel it coming. An ominous gray, pink tinged mass hurtling towards us as we stood mesmerized in a field at the foot of the Tetons.
Standing in Alta, Wyo.,, nearly in the center of the path of the total eclipse of the sun, we who had traveled from Laguna Beach were about to become umbraphiles, eclipse lovers.
It began with a nip in the upper right corner of the sun that continued to grow, making the sun appear as a rapidly waning crescent moon. Ten minutes before totality, the temperature started to drop, an eerie chill in the deepening twilight. Soon it would be upon us, darkness leaping upon the earth at midday, precisely at 11:35 a.m.
None of us had seen a total eclipse before, but with the flood of hype and information at our fingertips, we had made preparations.
Unlike humans who lived before the 18th century when astronomers had yet to figure out when eclipses would occur, we would be experiencing the Great American Eclipse with “prepared rather than surprised eyes.”
Lauren Howell put out mason jars filled with water that would be infused with “eclipse energy.” I looked for the lightest sheet I could find (a pink satin one) to put on the ground to capture “shadow bands,” ripples of dark and light that appear in the moments before and after totality. John Oshlund made a pinhole camera out of a cardboard box. His wife, Patti, set up colanders in front of a white board hoping to capture multiple images of the eclipse. Michael Howell, after preparing our viewing area by coaxing an old weed-whacker into action, set up his phone to record. Renee Varner, who grew up in Laguna Beach and has recently moved to Bozeman, Mont., stretched out on her air mattress. And Gayle Waite, who had showered us with an abundance of eclipse glasses picked up as she traveled north, took the opportunity to simply sit and observe: nothing to do, nowhere to go, knowing that we were all in the right place at the right time.
The day before, some of us attended lectures by astronomers gathered at Grand Targhee, the ski area up the hill, teaching us a bit of eclipse history, language, viewing protocol and prepping us for what might we might see.
The ancients had stories to explain the disappearance of the sun in the middle of the day. Most often the celestial terrorists were various animals eating the sun. In North Korea, white dogs were to blame. In the Yucatan, it was a jaguar; in Bolivia, a puma; and in Wyoming, where we stood, a jackalope was the culprit. Ritual activity to liberate the sun and moon from the demons usually involved noise. And whatever was employed, it always worked.
But the gulf between hearing about something and seeing it was immense. The experience, these veteran umbraphiles said, would be “like standing in the middle of a three-ring circus,” each of us reacting in our own unique way.
Right before totality, the “diamond ring,” the last dazzling pinpoint of sunlight appeared, signaling that it was safe to take off our eclipse glasses.
Illuminated by gentle silver, shimmering light, unlike anything nature normally offers, we, and our surroundings, were altered.
Our skin tones changed, glowing lighter and softer. Colors were saturated, contrasts boosted. We were lit by starlight and the air felt buoyant.
When the moon, sun and earth moved into perfect alignment our world, and our perception of our place in it, had changed.
The star that keeps us alive had disappeared, giving us a glimpse of darkness and of our fragility, unmooring our foothold of surety. It’s for a reason that the English word eclipse comes from the Greek term for abandonment.
But the loss of the sun was not total. The moment the moon merged with sun, the corona, an aura of plasma encircling our star, blossomed into a pearly white crown. Bailey’s beads, sunlight peeking through the canyons of the moon, appeared as glowing red dots. Prominences, pink nuclear flames, leapt outward.
At the center was the moon as we had never seen it, a black hole in the sky, a disc, darker than dark.
Savviness did not keep us stoic.
Some of us sat quietly, barefoot in the grass. Others squealed, hugged, danced. The six dogs that had been chasing each other for hours collapsed under the charcoal sky. For two and a half minutes we all slowed down, stopped and gazed in wonder at the celestial show that we were a part of.
As the black shadow moved away from us, the soft light emanating from the corona was replaced by bright sunlight, harsher than dawn, even though only a fraction of the sun was exposed.
When the sun reappeared full force, and before our post eclipse brunch, we stood in a circle voicing words to describe the unworldly that for a moment was our world. Connection. Awesome. Calm. Intense. Serenity and Rebirth. Absolute. Luminosity of our core. Utter relaxation.
“The Great American Eclipse” focused Americans across the country on a wonder in the sky, an indelible moment of perfect, total wholeness and planetary harmony.
The sun is 400 times bigger than the moon, but the moon is 400 times closer to Earth allowing the perfect alignment. Is it a bizarre cosmic coincidence or a gift from the universe, allowing us with so many seemingly differences to come together in awe?
The next total eclipse in North America will be in 2024. Where will you be?
Laguna Beach resident and author Robin Pierson writes about topics that interest her.
Eclipse Hunters Detect the Language of the Universe
By Ellen Kempler, Special to the Independent
Locals Ellen and Roger Kempler set up camp in Oregon alongside two other couples from Laguna Beach, Darren and Jinhee Trone and Maya Dunne and John Dombrink, as well as another couple from Portland, who all arrived separately.
They camped near the port-a-potties for two nights in a cleared ryegrass field with hundreds of others from many states and countries. The no-frills, low-budget experience lacked running water and required seats on makeshift stools and cooking over a propane stove.
The farm provided meat-heavy dinners and live bands each night at tables set up under a tent in a garden abloom in summer flowers. They also had fire pits set up for s’more making, a Zombie paint-ball game, a bounce house, wagon rides, art classes and astronomy talks.
The Seattle family next to us did yoga every morning before their dad made breakfast.
Although clouds gathered on eclipse eve, we awoke Monday, Aug. 21, to perfectly clear skies. A few tour buses rolled in and planes buzzed overhead. Reporters, photographers and television crews began to arrive. We were interviewed and photographed by a reporter from the Woodburn Independent.
We put on our glasses to witness, at about 10:15 a.m., the moon’s first nibble at the 1 o’clock position on the right edge of the sun and watched it gradually consume more and more of the orange sphere, eventually creating a perfect crescent, like a bright negative of a crescent moon.
The wind began to pick up and the temperature dropped, prompting us to put on jackets and eventually zip them up. News sources said the temperature only dropped 4 degrees, but it felt significant. Just before totality, the sun “set,” turning the sky around us pink. The light took on the sepia tone you see in a partial eclipse, and then the sky turned black and planets and stars emerged.
When we realized we could no longer see through our eclipse glasses, we ripped them off and looked up to see a black hole where the sun once was, with the flame-like corona shooting out in constant movement around the edges.
It’s emotional and impossible to catch in a photograph or adequately describe in words. People yelled, screamed and ran around.
The universe is speaking, and all you can do is take it in. After that too-brief moment, the sun “rises” and you see the sun begin to appear on the other side as the moon begins its slow departure.
At the end, our camping-averse friend said, “That was worth the port-a-potties.” The overwhelming feeling afterwards is gratitude for having seized the opportunity to fully experience this.