Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Made Speechless By The Sun

One coincidental benefit of moving to the northern Atlanta area last year was the relatively short distance needed to travel to the totality zone of the so-called Great American Eclipse of 2017. Some people planned their trip years in advance. I got in my car at 11 AM and drove 60 miles northeast to Helen, Georgia, known for its German Alpine design and atmosphere.

Hello Helen, Georgia! I parked temporarily to take this photo.

I had intended to leave a little earlier in the day. But life happens. Specifically, some wild animal was trapped in between our first floor and our basement ceiling and our cats were flipping out, so naturally I needed to investigate. Finally, I decided to let the cats sort it out and hit the road.


I had also intended to arrive in Helen in time for the start of the eclipse at around 1:00. However, I got hungry. We stopped for lunch just short of Helen. I allowed myself a, “That’s so cool!” moment when I peered at the Sun through my solar glasses in the parking lot before getting back in my car.

My daughter's cracker snack became a solar eclipse projector.

I had no specific destination in mind. Because the Sun was so high in the sky, any spot gave as good of a view as any other. But my 20-month-old daughter had taken a nap in the car and I wanted to give her space to run around. Thankfully, the town of Helen was crowded but not the park. I found a bench on the grass to set up my camera and take my initial telephoto shots. A fellow sky-watcher with a similar aged child commented how independent my Josephine is, entertaining herself with rocks. It’s a good thing, too, because I didn’t want to take my eyes off the sky for long.

Eventually Josephine noticed the narrow, shallow stream. For the next hour, nothing distracted her from the sheer joy of picking up river rocks and throwing them in the water. I relocated to the stream bank where I sat with my equipment, in disbelief of what I was seeing.

No photo I’ve taken or seen captured what I saw yesterday. It goes beyond imagery. The darkness, the senses, the emotions, all too complex to be summed up in a picture. I’ve never had an experience like that before. The total solar eclipse was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed.

Solar eclipse in the lens flare.

In the minutes before totality, it dawned (or dusked) on me that the darkness was descending as if it were sunset. So much about the atmosphere, except the position of the Sun in the sky, felt like dusk. I even had the instinctual maternal thought of, “My 20-month-old is too young to play in a stream in the dark!”

As for my eclipse watching partner, the Sun didn’t hold her interest at all, and she kept throwing rocks into the water as if nothing else in the world was more important. I even tried to guide her head upward during totality, but she fought me and won, returning to her water play.

As the tiniest slivers of light shined, dimmed, and disappeared, cheers erupted all around me. I didn’t expect this. I was not in a crowded place. But in the distance in every direction, shouts and claps echoed. Complete strangers, completely different people, all united as one to admire the beauty of our Solar System and our place in it. I couldn’t help but cheer as well.

I have degrees in astrophysics. I am a space professional. In the minutes of solar eclipse totality, all intellectual thoughts left me. No word left my lips other than “Wow” and “Oh my God.” I don’t know when I started crying, but water filled my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. I didn’t expect to cry. And I didn’t let tears stop me from continuing to stare in awe as our closest planetary neighbor blocked out the light of our closest star.

I still can't believe I took this shot without a tripod.

As the light returned, I felt as though I had taken part in something much greater than myself. In reality, I took no part in it at all. The motions of the Earth, Sun, and Moon are all set in predictable clockwork, and we humans just observe. But by gathering together for this single purpose, we were a movement of another kind. I had a huge smile on my face.

Post-totality smile!

We stayed a little while longer. I put the solar glasses on my face and leaned back on the stream bank, not caring about capturing photos or missing totality. Josephine kept playing with rocks and water as if nothing else was happening. Eventually I dragged her away and set off for home.

It took much longer to get back than it did to get there. The park road was at such a standstill, I put my car in park, opened my car door, and watched the eclipse on and off for another half an hour more. Eclipse traffic combined with commuter traffic to create a mess on the road to home. But it was worth it. Seeing a total solar eclipse was worth every minute I spent sitting in traffic while my daughter screamed.

I experienced the eclipse many times over since then, processing my own photos and browsing others’ postings. What strikes me is how much this astronomical alignment brought us all together: space enthusiasts and regular people, friends and strangers alike. People who otherwise wouldn't care about celestial objects were staring in wonder. The solar eclipse brought rare unity to our country, centered around the Sun and the Moon. Thank you all for sharing in the astro love!

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