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August 23, 2017

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Eclipse 2017

 By Dan O'Brien

    I had never seen a total, solar eclipse and didn’t think I had missed much. I mean, so something drifts in front of the sun and the landscape gets kinda dark for a few minutes. Heck, you don’t have to wait a hundred years to see something like that. I figured it had to be sort of like a dark, rogue cloud blowing across the face of the sun–happens every day.

    I spent the two weeks before the 2017 eclipse teasing people as they ordered special eclipse glasses and consulted the internet for the shortest route to the sweet spot of totality. I listened to half a dozen people calmly, but futilely, try to explain the physics of how the eclipse works. Questionable stories of scientists duping primitive people by announcing, and then seeming to produce, an eclipse were rampant. The eclipse was on the tongue of everyone I work with–our sales people, shippers, butchers, cowboys and truck drivers were all talking about it. People on the phone – eclipse, eclipse, eclipse. Some sort of mass hysteria was in play.

    Even my kids, Jilian and Colton, had caught the bug. They wanted me to join them and their boys, Lincoln and Barrett, on a safari to Alliance, Nebraska–ninety miles and the quickest path to totality. Colton planned to view this solar phenomenon through the lens in his welding helmet. Jilian had scared up a pair of eclipse glasses, originally ordered from Amazon and resold at a scandalous profit. They packed their old Suburban as if they were going to measure the parallax of the sun as it moved across the Gobi desert. I was trying to think of a way to back out of joining them when three-year-old Lincoln looked up at me and said, “You coming, Pop?” I had no choice.

    Both Jilian and Colton had wanted to get their work done before they left so they’d been up since long before light that morning. I figured that I’d be driving while they slept, but no one was sleepy except me and the babies. Colton drove. The kids passed out in their car seats and I crashed in the passenger seat. We were headed for a little state park just outside of Alliance, Nebraska. We pulled into Box Butte Lake State Park just a few minutes after the eclipse was supposed to begin. I got out of the car, stretched, and looked up at the sky. Perfect, blue prairie sky but nothing was happening–just a blazing August sun and a light breeze. But Jilian put on her glasses and squealed, “It’s starting. Oh my God, it’s starting." I looked up through Colton’s welding helmet and saw that a black dot had appeared on the corner of the sun. It was totally not impressive and so I helped Lincoln throw stones at the garbage can before we both stretched out in the grass beside three-month-old Barrett to resume our naps.

    I woke up twenty minutes later and, when I opened my eyes, something was different. Lincoln was groggy too and we sat there blinking and looking at Jilian and Colton as they oohed and aahed over the eclipse, which was apparently progressing nicely, though there was no way of telling without stealing the glasses or the welding helmet. Even then, it was just a slightly larger, dark spot on the sun. The wind had come up a little and the temperature seemed to have taken a dip. The eclipse couldn’t have had anything to do with that but there was something definitely wrong with the light. It didn’t seem any darker but there was something grey in the air, as if the pixels were slowly washing out of the picture of the little campground by Box Butte Lake. Suddenly, I was fascinated – not so much about the moon’s shadow that Jilian and Colton announced was now nearly covering the sun, but the effect it was having on the light. I’ve studied the diffuse light of mornings and evening on the Great Plains for half a century. But this was not like the joyous early morning light or as powerful as a sunset. This was unique.

    After Lincoln and I had viewed the eclipse through the glasses, we stood in that grainy light and looked at each other. Lincoln was bored by looking upward through the glasses but, like me, this odd, otherworldly light captured his attention. Some of the ancient cottonwood trees along the edge of Box Butte Lake had blown down years before and created a jungle of dead-fall limbs and branches that drew Lincoln’s attention like a magnate. The old cottonwood trunks were a grayish-brown, and as I followed him into the tree grove I realized why this partial light was not like daybreak or dusk: The shadows were all wrong. They were not long and dramatic. They were stagnate and locked in time: August 21, 2017 – 11:49 am.

    As the light slowly reverted to normal, I followed Lincoln through the cottonwood maze. He crawled over one log, then under the next and I did my best to keep up. It was like trailing a Hobbit through a chapter of a Tolkien book. It was a small adventure, but significant. As we looped back to where Jilian and Colton were packing up Barrett, the cooler, and the picnic basket, they were smiling. They were still excited about the eclipse. Colton nodded toward Lincoln. “You think he’ll remember this?” he asked.
   
    I had no way to answer the question. I imagine that he will remember the corona of the sun burning through the dark glasses. But I hope the strongest memory is the light–filtering down like some mutant, summer snow that settles in briefly every hundred years or so.

Comments

Burk Daggett

August 23, 2017

Just beautiful imagery Dan, thanks. We live in the path of totality here in Central Oregon and were also awed by the temp going down so much. We noticed our horses didn’t give a hoot one way or another. We think they prefer the cold anyway.
Burk

Georgene

August 23, 2017

How I would have loved to have been with you all! What a fabulous experience, to share with family. Priceless.
I wasn’t luck enough to nab “the glasses” and, so, was having to make do with watching it, on TV. I know…break out the violins, right? Poor Georgene, she only got to see the totality at every major spot, along the path of totality. That was glorious but what I relished most was the interviews, with families, who had traveled long distances, in order to experience this together. That speaks volumes. One young girl (about 9, I would say) spoke so passionately, about the privilege of the experience an how it made her feel, inside…something she would remember all of her life. It doesn’t get better, than that.
Thanks for sharing, Dan. I travel, vicariously, through my family and this is another great example.

Lynn Kelly

August 23, 2017

It is such an other-worldly feeling – that strangely diffuse light quality. I, like you, thought no big deal. But it kind of was. I enjoyed quietly. Not with a crowd. Just my way.

Bob DeSimone

August 23, 2017

I was surprised that you didn’t have a more detailed account of the sky view during the 1 min 50 sec period of totality at your location. Did you view the eclipse during this period without the glasses, as iit was safe to do so? We traveled from Denver to a ranch in Nebraska, 1 hr north of Lake McConaughy, a point on the direct path of the centerline, where totality lasted 2 min 32sec. For the 11/2 hour wait looking at the partial eclipse, through our protective glasses, I must admit boredom set in. Suddenly as totality neared, and the horses running loose amongst us got anxious, everything changed. At the moment of totality we took off our glasses, and the feeling and sight was something I never experienced in nature. Your description of the light and shadows of the landscape was correct, but the real delight was in the sky overhead. The view of the suns corona arching out and waving, 360 degrees around the sun, with two orange sun spots visible at 12 and 4 o’clock along the edge of the moon, and the sight of planets and stars emerging in the sky sounding the eclipsed sun, were all something I will never forget. A brief 2 1/2 minutes experience, that I hope I can experience again, during my remaining lifetime, sometime, somewhere on this earth!

Susan

August 23, 2017

Did you look at the leaf-shadows? They turn crescent-shaped!

Susan Helene Gottfried

August 23, 2017

I was a student in Bowling Green’s famed MFA fiction program in ’94 and an eclipse passed overhead. And dammit, Dan, I was struck by the light and the shadows just as you were. I never bothered to get the glasses or look up — my apartment was configured all wrong for seeing the sun — but man, those shadows. Haunt me still.

Christy

August 23, 2017

How lucky you all are to have family and love!

Toni Hamner

August 23, 2017

The leaf shadows were like fish scales, but on the open prairie you probably didn’t see them. Holding a spaghetti strainer out over a hard surface was awesome as it left a bunch of crescents!
And Dr. OZ did a whole segment on eating bison this morning! Go Wild Buffalo!

Eleanor Shimeall

August 24, 2017

How wonderful for your children to see it;, and have you write so poetically/ We are pleased to hear from you on computer . With only 2 of us we don’t eat much, The family enjoyed a buffalo roast a couple of years ago. Clark is 95 and sleeps alot. I am 94 and am still going strong.
eleanor shimeall

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