This post is contributed by Barnaby Porter from his archives. Read the previous post here.
Every so often, the word gets out we’ve got an eclipse making ready to happen. There are those who get quite excited. The papers tell you we won’t see another such eclipse until perhaps well into the next century. Wow! And in short order there is a whole lot of scrambling around for cardboard boxes (to make pinhole viewers out of) and hunks of glass to smoke up and look through.
What makes me laugh is all the advice that is spewed out through the media about how to and how not to look at a solar eclipse (the kind where the Sun is hidden behind the Moon). They’ve got people sticking their heads into boxes, squinting through shaded glass and photographic film and generally doing a lot of curious things to keep from going blind. Meanwhile, they tell us, whatever we do, don’t look at the Sun through telescopes and binoculars, as if that tidbit of advice really needs to be underlined, as if that old Sun weren’t up there every day anyhow, waiting to burn our eyeballs out.
Even the weatherman gets into the act. I guess his realm extends at least as far as the Sun and the Moon, and that is probably right since the Sun and the Moon do have a lot to do with the weather here on Earth. The TV weatherman I watch, Joe, is a very knowledgeable guy and a real meteorologist, not just one of those wandering media clones in the ugly sports coat who waves his arms around a lot while talking about slipping and sliding fronts, and whose knowledge of weather, geography and the English language, together, might have used up a half hour’s cramming in the studio’s back room. (That, sadly, is all too often the limited depth of expertise on such things.) Anyhow, Joe knows his material, and it is clear that his interests lie in anything to do with the atmosphere and atmospheric conditions, from storm waves to aurora borealis. He enlightens his viewers with a discussion of eclipses – solar eclipses, lunar eclipses, degrees of totality, the ramifications of the differences in the Earth’s and Moon’s orbital planes and diameters, distances between the heavenly bodies and so forth.
Doing his duty, he does mention the binoculars and the smoked glass for those of us who were born yesterday, but for those of us who weren’t, this thoughtful man continues to paint the bigger picture as he sees it. Knowing that our planet is not populated entirely by morons, he uses the little airtime available to him to delve into a bit of math and astronomy to explain not only the predictability of eclipses, but their various peculiarities and what we can learn from them. Most important, I think, Joe conveys his own sense of curiosity and wonder. His interests are intellectual, enlightening and (no way around it) spiritual too.
I share his enthusiasm. Some years back, we had a total eclipse of the Sun. It was a clear March noon. The weather was good, so my wife and I decided to have a picnic as we watched from a sunny porch overlooking Old Broad Bay in Waldoboro. The light became silvered and eerie, and as it got darker and darker, the ducks and the gulls out on the bay lifted into the air in twisting, spiraling confusion. Their light-sensitive clocks went haywire, and they flew every which way like bats. Much of our view of the scene happened to be through the magnificent, scraggly bare branches of a gigantic oak tree standing on the bank. I felt somewhat spooked myself by the spectacular aura of indirect light with the black Sun poised overhead.
Then, at the very moment of totality, a bald eagle suddenly appeared above, circling, circling, more spirit than bird, its soaring image in the ethereal sky, framed by the giant oak. From that time on I have seen this ecliptic interplay between our Earth, Moon and Sun as a near spiritual experience, direct evidence that there’s something going on out there that is a lot bigger than we are.
More recently, we were treated with an annular eclipse of the sun. I was at work. Just as I stepped out of my shop with my welding helmet on to see how the eclipse was progressing, a favorite customer, Gretchen, and her husband drove in. I was staggering around with that helmet on my head, looking up at the Sun. Gretchen begged for a look too, and so for a few minutes we shared that dirty old welding helmet and marveled at the site in the heavens. Then she called to her husband, still sitting in the car, who appeared to be in the middle of a business call on his cellular telephone, “Honey, Honey… You’ve got to take a look at this! It’s wonderful!”
Honey’s frowning response was quick and gruff. Making a brusque, waving-off motion with his hand, he growled, “I’m not interested in that stuff!” and continued with his phone call.
“Stuff,” he called it! I was momentarily nonplussed. But then I philosophized: for some of us, perhaps a few too many of us, the true marvels in this world are just that – stuff. For others of us, who can put down the telephone for a minute, the true picnickers among us, they are the stuff of wonder.
Artist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. On October 7, 2021, Barnaby completed his tenure on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees after six years of service.