My biggest concern about viewing today’s total solar eclipse was that, after doing 14 podcasts and at least 25 blog posts about the event over the last 19 months, it would be underwhelming.
I’ve seen Saturn hundreds—thousands?—of times, but I still do a little gasp whenever I get the planet into the field of view of my telescope. There it is! Crank that up about a thousand times, and that’s what I felt when I saw first contact of my very first total solar eclipse from “The Grove” at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon, and again when the diamond ring went away and the whole campus went dark as if a light switch had been thrown, revealing the Sun’s shimmering white corona for a glorious two minutes.
The intervening hour and 13 minutes (or so) between the onset of the eclipse and totality offered plenty of chances to observe interesting natural phenomena, tricks of light, and human behavior. The university had a number of semi-official viewing spots, on the football stadium and other athletic fields, mostly. But some hundred of us chose The Grove, with nice trees providing shade from the diminishing summer Sun, and also leaving easy access back into the lawn for a view of the progress of the eclipse.
My favorite eclipse watcher, or non-watcher, perhaps, was a young lad of seven or eight who kept stomping off from his family group muttering, “It’s not that impressive.” Some time into the eclipse another kid was heard informing the elders that he needed a bio break. Mom loudly exclaimed, in order to make the point emphatically, that you shouldn’t poop during an eclipse. She soon relented and escorted the kid to the loo, no doubt considering the consequences. Many of the kids in attendance—one of the weekend activities was a camp for children—seemed far more interested in play than in some dumb-ass sky thing the adults wanted to see. Where are the water-powered rockets when you need them?! Other kids were totally along for the ride, watching through their eclipse glasses or goggles and declaring, “It’s awesome.”
We saw the little mini eclipses projected through the gaps between oak leaves in The Grove. We noticed bright Venus popping out in splendor several minutes—an hour? Time moves at a different pace during an eclipse—before totality. It got considerably cooler. I kept looking west for a glimpse of the Moon’s shadow. I noticed that deep, twilight purple of dusk relatively high in the sky; was that the umbra, above us but not yet reaching ground? I’m not sure. Then—BAM! Just like that it was dark and there was that amazing corona. I’ve since seen social media posts from people who took photos, and the corona looks round in those images. I saw almost wing-like structure reaching out a couple of solar diameters on either side. The eye and the camera see very different things. As a total solar eclipse newbie, I took the advice of many: Don’t try to photograph totality; just watch and enjoy.
I was expecting to see more stars, but they didn’t really appear. I thought I saw Mars, just for a moment or two, but it was pretty close to the Sun, and it might have been a trick of the light. I couldn’t spot Mercury. I really just kept going back to the corona. I can see all of that other stuff most any time. I also didn’t catch any animal behavior. There are a few squirrels on campus, but I didn’t spot any of them going eclipse crazy.
Then, in what seemed like way less than the two minutes we were promised, the Sun came back out from the other side of the Moon. The glasses went back on, for most. Others began to pack up and head on their way. Said one kid: “Can we go play now.” But I can’t help thinking that the “It’s not that impressive” kid will wind up with a Ph.D. in astronomy. Old Sol works in mysterious ways. We stayed and watched as the Moon slowly slipped away, and in another hour the eclipse was really over. The light and warmth came back and everything was as it was, even though everything had changed. I will always remember this amazing natural spectacle, watched from a lawn at Western Oregon University.
I can’t wait for the next one, and already have a great plan for the eclipse of 2024.