Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Some eclipse impressions

Background stars and planets during the eclipse, in planetarium app set for location in eastern Oregon. image: stellarium.org

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to travel to the path of totality for the eclipse of August 21, 2017, and have just returned home.

As you can gather from the description of a total solar eclipse found in the previous post, the full experience of this awe-inspiring event is really impossible to describe. 

However, for my own benefit in recording of some of the feelings it inspired, and for anyone interested, I will post a small account of my journey here.

Because I live along the region of California's central coast, I selected a location in the northwest of the united states as being most practical for me to reach, and for a variety of reasons including weather, distance from large population centers, distance from interstates, and distance from current large wildfires, chose to aim for eastern Oregon as being most likely to have clear skies and least likely to have traffic jams that could hinder my ability to reach the path of totality in time.

Below is an image of part of my route, drawn in purple and superimposed over a Google map showing the path of totality (the path of totality created by the direct alignment to the moon in front of the sun is demarcated between the parallel blue lines, with the center of the path indicated by a red line which is also parallel to the blue lines):

My path took me through some regions of incredible geology, including vast basins, alkali lakes, buttes, escarpments, huge massifs, and piney forests. I passed the Pit River Falls Canyon along California Route 299, the Modoc National Forest, the bright turquoise Goose Lake and Lake Abert, which are alkaline lakes located in vast basins very similar in feel and geology to the Carrizo Plain basin containing Soda Lake in San Luis Obispo County where Painted Rock is located), the desolate Poverty Basin in Oregon north of Lake Abert, and multiple branches of the Malheur National Forest.

Below is an image looking north from interstate 395 along the shore of Lake Abert:

And below is an image of an escarpment north of Lake Abert, showing a typical scene along my drive. I believe the cylindrical piles of rocks contained within chicken-wire are acting as fence-posts, most likely because driving pickets or posts into the ground to any great depth is difficult or impossible in some of these areas, due to the lack of soil over the rocky plateau in this stark and geologically-fascinating region:

In all, my journey was about 890 miles in each direction, and for a variety of reasons took the better part of two days of driving each way.

I brought a lot of water with me on the trip!

While camping out the first night on my way towards Oregon, I decided to play a little music to help me fall asleep, and my music player randomly selected "Here Comes the Sun" by the Beatles, which I felt was appropriate.

Each morning before the eclipse, I rose early to see the pre-dawn stars above the eastern horizon, in order to get a good feel for any stars and planets that might be visible during totality itself. The pre-dawn lineup is spectacular this time of year -- it's what I have called the "pre-dawn lineup of the Golden Age" in previous posts from some years back. If at all possible, you may want to try to rise by about 5am and get to a dark location with a good view of the eastern and southern horizons (for viewers in the northern hemisphere, or the eastern and northern horizons for those in the southern hemisphere) in order to enjoy the view of Taurus and the Pleiades, with Perseus above them, massive Orion reaching towards the V-shaped Hyades in Taurus, and the Gemini Twins rising from the horizon.

When this lineup of stars is rising before dawn, I think of it as pointing back to the Golden Age referenced in myths from around the world, based on my understanding of the arguments presented in Hamlet's Mill, which posit the Age of Gemini as the Golden Age, based on the various myths regarding the slaying, drowning, binding, enchanting, dismembering or deposing of a figure related to Orion (including Osiris, Kronos, Saturn, Jamshyd, Prometheus, Tammuz, Yima, Yama and many others). For further discussion of this concept, see previous posts such as this one and this one.

As you can see from the star-chart at the top of this post, presently the sun is located in the constellation Leo the Lion (close to Leo's brightest star, Regulus), which follows Cancer the Crab and the Twins of Gemini. Beautiful Venus is unmistakeable in the Twins of Gemini at present -- you can't miss the planet in the pre-dawn sky in the east, and as you can see from the chart above, the two "shoulder-stars" of Orion pretty much define a straight line that points almost directly to Venus.

I arrived in Oregon on Sunday and traveled through Seneca, John Day, and Mount Vernon on my way to the "center-line" of the path of totality. Although the roads thus far had been relatively free of congestion, John Day and Mount Vernon were packed with activity related to the eclipse. North of Mount Vernon, nearly every turnout or broad shoulder along the side of the road on both sides was occupied by cars or RVs and surrounded by people with folding chairs and camping gear, staking out places to observe the next morning's event.

I proceeded past the eclipse-path center-line, towards a branch of the Malheur National Forest and a forest road heading into the forest along a promising ridge-line with commanding views towards the southern horizon (above which the sun arcs along its daily path, for viewers in the northern hemisphere):

The small purple circle in the above map marks the location towards which I was heading, a point situated along Forest Road 3940 inside the National Forest. Below is a satellite version of the same general location shown in the above map, but zoomed-in slightly. You should be able to recognize the two "jaws" of the forest which show up in green in the map above by the forested areas in the map below -- my eclipse-viewing location is in the "upper jaw" of the dragon-mouth or crocodile-mouth of forest protruding out along and above the red center-line of the eclipse in the above map, which can be matched-up with forested areas in the below satellite image:

The trail itself (an unpaved, improved dirt-road) is barely visible as a faint line in this satellite image of the same location (below), this time zoomed-in on the "upper jaw" containing the location from which I chose to view the eclipse:

That night, I found a nice campsite under the pines, with plans for the morning to move back down the road about 800 meters towards a more exposed location with a wide and unobstructed view of the valley to the south. Here is a close-up topo map showing that location's latitude and longitude, along with lines indicating the general direction for viewing the eclipse (facing south, looking at the region between the purple lines, with the sun in the morning closer to the right-hand line as you face the map, because east is on the right):

Based only on terrain analysis (I didn't use a GPS), I believe the location where I gathered with others to see the eclipse is indicated by the marker inside the purple circle in the above topographical or relief-map. The latitude and longitude are indicated in the box below that point. Long Creek is the nearest town, but it is to the north along Interstate-395 (I never actually got to Long Creek on this visit).

Below is a hand-held video showing a quick sweep of the above-indicated viewing range, sweeping from east to west (or from the purple line on the right as you face the page towards the line on the left,  taken with the camera facing towards the bottom of the page as oriented) and captured on the morning of August 21, about an hour or so before the first contact of the moon with the edge of the sun. You can see a couple of tents down the hill, towards the east side of the video as it starts out:

One of the best aspects of watching the eclipse was making new friends while experiencing it. This article from the New York Times explores some interesting hypotheses regarding the sense of togetherness created through the sharing of powerful experiences with strangers. Even if you don't agree with everything in the article, it offers some interesting thoughts, along with some quality photographs of eclipse-watchers around the globe, and across the decades. I had noticed the headline of this story prior to the eclipse, but didn't get around to reading it until afterwards.

As you can see from the above video, the morning August 21st offered clear blue skies. I had an opportunity to go into a secluded spot in the woods and practice some morning qigong before heading down the dirt road to the location shown in the above video and indicated on the topo maps. When I arrived, many other people were already there, and everyone was very friendly and welcoming. One individual, a physics teacher from the Seattle area, was up the hill from the road performing his sun salutations when I got there.

The progress of events was almost identical to the descriptions given by Jane B. Sellers in the texts quoted in the previous post -- at about 9:10 local time, Ajay the physics teacher excitedly announced that the moon had made contact with the sun, and we all began watching the disc of the moon encroach further and further into the territory of the face of the sun (through glasses, of course) from sun's upper right quadrant. We also made pinhole projections, as well as binocular projections (see previous posts here and here for discussions of this technique), and even learned -- from a trio including a young man who works for the National Park Service in Olympic National Park in what is today the state of Washington, and who had brought along the "Junior Ranger" brochure the Park Service had made discussing the eclipse and activities to try during the event -- that you can make your own "pinhole" projector by crossing three fingers of one hand perpendicular to three fingers of the other (like making a "tic-tac-toe" grid, using three lines crossed with three lines instead of two with two, and using your fingers for the lines) in order to project the crescent shape from the uncovered portion of the sun during the progressing eclipse, and watching the crescent grow thinner and thinner as the sun continues to overtake the moon.

As the partial phase of the eclipse progressed, our shadows became increasingly indistinct around the edges, and little crescent shapes began popping up in strange ways along the edges of shadows -- including between the spread fingers of one hand, in the "V" between each finger, as one of the young women in the Olympic National Park group observed.

As the crescent of the sun grew narrower and narrower, the entire valley (and the place where we were all standing) began to grow darker and darker -- but less like the approach of night-time and more like the kind of eery dull reddish glow created when clouds of smoke from a wildfire are filling the air (something that is unfortunately somewhat familiar to those in the part of California where I reside), except even duller and redder. The air felt red and hazy, as if wearing dusty reddish lenses, except that there was no smoke or haze in the air, of course.

It also became noticeably colder and some people even began putting on jackets as it got colder and darker.

Eventually, the two branches of the remaining crescent of the sun, already narrow and sharp, began to grow shorter and shorter as the body of the moon moved further and further across the face of the star. Then, the remaining crescent grew so thin that it could not be termed a crescent anymore, and all that was left to see of the sun was a glowing red line in a short arc across what was (from our observation point) the lower left region of the sun's edge.

I thought I might be able to see Bailey's Beads or the famous "Diamond Ring Effect" at this point, before what Jane Sellers calls "second contact" when the advancing edge of the moon makes contact with the last un-occluded edge of the sun, but instead what I experienced was an abrupt and sudden transformation as what used to be the sun was replaced by that fearsome black object you see in the photographs, projecting a seething white corona in all directions.

It bore no resemblance to what we had been watching before.

The change was so immediate that it was as if someone had suddenly sucked all the air out of the room you were standing in, or as if you were in an airplane that suddenly changed thousands of feet of altitude and your ears popped audibly.

And, much like the descriptions in the passages quoted in the previous post, I didn't want to take my eyes off of it.

I could barely even bring myself to look around for the "brighter stars and planets" which the accounts said can sometimes be seen, but when I did the only other object I was able to see in the sky was brilliant Venus, to the right (west) and up from the seething black object that used to be the sun.

The color of the sky was not black like night, but rather slate grey (I think). The experience of totality was so disorienting that (at least for me) I felt like I had to piece it together after it happened to recall all the things that I saw.

I managed to take a quick video using my unsophisticated hand-held video camera, which has the advantage of having a pop-out screen on the side, so that I didn't have to look through a lens to focus on the sun (which can be dangerous during the partial phase). It doesn't produce a very high-resolution image like some that you can find on the web elsewhere, but here is a screen shot of what it produced:

I didn't waste much time with the video camera. The corona in the above screen-shot looks like a blurry, indistinct blob -- but in person it was nothing like that, and gave instead the impression of streaming rays, or the writhing tentacles of an octopus with a thousand arms. It really gave me the impression of something that was howling, like the rushing-wind noise they make in the Lord of the Rings films whenever Frodo puts on the Ring and slips into the screaming spirit world (as conceived by director Peter Jackson).

The familiar sun had suddenly been replaced by some kind of monster in the sky, beautiful but also somewhat unsettling (making Jane Sellers' insight in connecting this phenomenon to aspects of the myth of Set and Horus in ancient Egypt seem suddenly even more powerful than before).

Then we began to notice the phenomenon of Bailey's Beads around the rim of the disc, particularly on the top and upper-right quadrant -- because the moon's disc was basically moving from upper-right to lower left, as the sun overtook the moon and passed behind it along the path of the ecliptic, which was arcing up from the left or east as we faced to the south, since the eclipse took place in the morning hours on the sun's upward path where we were located on the face of the spinning globe.

There were bright yellow or white beads along the upper-right edge of the black disc, but directly at the top or "twelve o'clock" point on the disc was a very bright, deep red beacon, almost like a little LED light. It had not been visible earlier during the totality phase -- only as (I know now, in hindsight) the phenomenon of totality was preparing to end.

While we admired this powerful red bead on the top of the sun, talking about it to one another, a brilliant and blinding ball of light suddenly began to grow on the upper-right (around "two o'clock") point on the circle -- and it rapidly increased in size and intensity: the Diamond Ring Effect. All discussion ceased as soon as it began, and people started gasping or even yelling.

It was undoubtedly the most intense and memorable part of the entire eclipse for me.

It was like something living emerging from the dark hole in the sky, something so powerful and confident that it didn't hesitate or look around -- it just grew and grew until you couldn't look at it anymore.

And then suddenly the total phase of the eclipse was over, and the black disc with its halo were gone, replaced again by the sun -- a new sun this time.

The replacement happened so quickly that I found myself wanting to go back and see it happen again. The partial phases that we had delighted in experiencing and playing with during the run-up to the total phase were taking place again, but in reverse -- you could still make "pinholes" with your fingers and see crescents -- but they were no longer interesting in the aftermath of that black hole and the final Diamond Ring eruption. I didn't notice the same reddish darkness that had descended during the pre-totality stages. Cars from further up the trail began driving by, and people began going home.

The group that I had been experiencing the eclipse with, however, stayed around and took a photograph together. I would share it, except I don't have everyone's permission to do so -- it is remarkable in that everyone looks extremely radiant, and perfect, even though we only did one "take" of the photograph (which almost never happens in a large group photo). Glorious sun rays can be seen streaming down from the top of the photo (the upper-left, since the picture was taken facing towards the south, so that east is still to the left) onto the group. It is a group of people who didn't all know each other prior to the eclipse, but which congealed in a kind of sudden or instant fashion, under the awe-inspiring celestial spectacle that we had all witnessed together.

I felt the urge to wave to people driving by as well -- even after leaving the eclipse sight and being stuck in the long lines of cars winding for hours along Interstate 395 on the way back south to Mount Vernon and John Day (there were still plenty of people sitting in chairs along the road, in driveways or turnouts). It was a strange feeling.

I also didn't feel like listening to podcasts, even though that was pretty much all that I had listened to on the two-day drive up. Instead, I felt like listening to the Beatles through headphones, because that music comes at you from all directions and contains little surprises (even after listening to it for many years or even decades), and that was only thing that I could stand to listen to after that experience for a few hours while moving only a few miles in the clogged streets of eastern Oregon.

Eventually, however, after listening to my entire Beatles album more than once, I took a break, and (while still stuck in traffic), tuned in to an episode of the Grimerica Show about the eclipse -- which I had downloaded weeks before but had not yet listened to. Perhaps not surprisingly, not only did this episode feature a terrific synchronicity in the "Igloo-only" section, but during the first few minutes of the show, Darren explained that he was going to travel to see the total eclipse -- but in a secret, undisclosed location.

He would only reveal that, based on two full years of planning, he had chosen to go to eastern Oregon, in the vicinity of John Day! He even gave some of his reasoning for his selection (including forest fires and the presence of east-west routes, in case weather required moving to a new location prior to the eclipse) that had led me to select the same part of the state.

While this is technically not a synchronicity, it was pretty astonishing to hear, as I drove away from John Day along Interstate-395, back towards the south and the desolate dry lake beds and windswept basins.

I couldn't listen to too much of the interview, however, before I wanted to go back to listening to music again.

I felt as though I had experienced something significant and awe-inspiring, and even life-changing. I would argue that it has less to do with some of the "psychological" explanations offered in the New York Times article cited above than with the deep realization that we are all here together under the same sun, a fact which unites us (or should unite us) in ways we don't always fully appreciate -- but that the ancient wisdom of the world conveys for our blessing, whatever part of their cycle the heavens are going through at any particular moment.

I don't know how others felt, but thought I would share some of the impressions the experience made on me, while they are fresh.


"Here Comes the Sun," Beatles, Abbey Road LP.

Studio version of the Beatles song not available on YouTube, but I also love the Peter Tosh version (above).

I would recommend listening to an original recording for full texture on this and all other old Beatles songs. Vinyl, of course, is an ideal medium if you have it.