For two years and more, the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017 consumed my life. From writing and rewriting activities designed to teach about the eclipse, delivering numerous professional development sessions and workshops to teachers around the country, planning and hosting webinars, and caring for a growing cadre of volunteer photographers from coast to coast, it seemed like all eclipse, all the time. In early July, I was burned out, and could not wait for August 22 to dawn, with no eclipse to look forward to, or activities to facilitate.
When I arrived at the Oregon Star Party, in the path of totality 45 miles east of Prineville, Oregon, all I wanted to do was hang out in the quiet. The smell of junipers, and the sight of mountain bluebirds on the drive into the Ochoco Mountains helped improve my mood, perhaps because they had nothing to do with the eclipse, and they were a reminder of the beauty of the high desert.
The night sky in the Ochoco Mountains is usually pristine, where on a good night the Milky Way will stretch from horizon to horizon, and up to a dozen deep sky Messier objects are visible to the naked eye. For me it is usually enough to sit back and gaze into the depths of time and space, the telescope left unused.
During a stint volunteering in the information tent, a woman came in and exclaimed “I know you, you’re the Megamovie guy, you’re famous!” And so I met Catherine Roberts. The Eclipse Megamovie is a project where the Astronomical Society of the Pacific partnered with the UC Berkeley Space Science Lab, and Google to produce a movie of the total eclipse from coast to coast. Using volunteer photographers with a variety of skill levels and equipment, the ASP’s role was to recruit, care for, and train what became a cadre of over 1,400 volunteers. Catherine was one of these volunteers. Later that afternoon, we discussed the settings to use on her cameras, and thus on my own. It was a simple thing, however meeting Catherine, and her enthusiasm, did wonders for my own excitement level, as once again I started looking forward to the eclipse.
An evening of dense smoke, and another with clouds obscuring the sky, had everyone concerned the eclipse would prove elusive to our observations. Monday, August 21 dawned with a thin haze of smoke and a few clouds along the horizon. Everyone arose and set up their equipment in the hope of seeing the phenomenon we had all traveled so far to see, putting up with washboard gravel roads, and a dusty landscape reminiscent of Mars, the topic of my Saturday evening talk to the gathered astronomers. At first contact, whoops and shouts of joy rose into the sky, greeting the beginning of the eclipse. As the partial eclipse deepened, anticipation rose, until finally, with a flash of the diamond ring, the solar corona sprang into our awareness.
Words are insufficient to describe what we saw with our unshielded eyes. After an all too short 83 seconds, another instance of the diamond ring, and totality was at an end. With an hour of waning partial eclipse ahead of us, my neighbor Rob brought me a can of Chromosphere Ale from Ecliptic Brewery to celebrate.
It was a marvelous experience to share standing in the shadow of the Moon with so many like-minded people on a barren ridge high in the Ochoco Mountains. A phenomenon like a solar eclipse is, as someone once said, the most democratic of experiences, where everyone shares in a collective experience of awe at the stunning beauty of what looks like a hole in the sky. It is no wonder the ancients worshiped the Sun, inventing all manner of myths and deities to explain an eclipse when their mind has lost its ability to do so rationally.
And the Eclipse Megamovie? Tens of thousands images from the majority of the volunteers, including Catherine Roberts and the author, is producing something marvelous. Its story is compelling in its own right.