A new way to look at the sun

My experience of the 2017 solar eclipse from atop an Oregon mountain gives me a new outlook on the most important star in my life. (Plus, I almost burn the mountain down.)

1.

How to make friends during a total solar eclipse? Try lugging a 25-pound crystal ball up to the top of 4,098-foot Mary’s Peak, Oregon’s tallest mountain in the Coast Range. The moment the ball comes out of its custom carrier — we wrapped it in an old towel and put it in a cloth grocery bag — the shiny sphere attracts the attention of dozens of eclipse watchers who have staked out this prime spot overlooking the Willamette Valley. This is no regular crystal ball. More a nostalgic ‘70s pet rock than New Age element, the ball has been part of our household for the past couple of years, where it absorbs the light of a few of the “special moons” (blue, red, harvest, pink) that have floated over Fresno. Now it’s made its first out-of-state trip, this time to witness a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event.

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In the moment of totality: my photograph taken from Mary’s Peak in central Oregon on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. Photo / The Munro Review

“Whoa, what is that?” a man asks when the ball makes its first appearance. Several women wander over to check it out. A reporter from a local paper pops up wanting an interview. A little leery of coming across too California kooky, we play up the frivolity of the exercise. While I’m holding the heavy ball, I notice one of my hands is getting uncomfortably warm. The ball is focusing the sunlight into an intense beam. With just an hour until the moon boldly and completely blocks out the sun, it’s a reminder of the broiling strength of our very own star.

2.

The location atop Mary’s Peak on this eclipse morning is superb, perhaps one of the best in the continental United States. To the west we can see all the way to the ocean. We are in the narrow 60-mile band of totality, when for about 100 seconds people will be safely able to view the sun with the naked eye. To the east, the big mountains in the Cascade Range tower in the distance: Mount St. Helens, Mount Hood, Mount Rainier. From the peak, we will have a 360-degree view, which means we should be able to see the approaching shadow of the eclipse as it races across the sky toward us. The sky is clear, with just a hint of haze at the horizon.

We didn’t climb all the way to the top of Mary’s Peak, by the way. We and several hundred others purchased tickets for buses to take us almost all the way there. The National Forest Service closed the mountaintop to all but the bus riders and a few lucky drivers who snagged permits to drive to the top. From the parking area it’s a steep half-mile climb to the summit.

About half an hour before the partial eclipse begins, the mood is mellow and festive. We stake out our spot facing east, and I set up my camera and tripod with my homemade solar filter attached.

3.

Another way for making friends on eclipse morning: bring a pinhole camera. There are many versions, but this one is a long cardboard tube capped on one end with aluminum foil pricked with a pin. At the other end, a small window lets the viewer see an image of the sun, a little smaller than a quarter. Our resourceful friends Nan and Kent, who have made this trek up the mountain with us, have brought his and hers pinhole cameras with them. The contraptions are about 6 feet long, and they look a bit unwieldy in action, like an infantryman hoisting a bazooka. (They also remind me of bagpipes.) These are the only two pinhole cameras on the peak, and they are a hit.

People around us start asking if they can look at the pinhole camera, too. A line forms. As the partial eclipse continues and the moon starts eating more of the sun, reverse Pac-Man style, the best part is that the viewers start teaching the next person in line how to hold the camera and what to look for.

4.

The sun begins to feel a little less intense. As the countdown continues, and we’re about 15 minutes from totality, a buzz zips through the crowd: Look at everyone’s shadows! Instead of the crisp outline you expect in broad daylight, those shadows begin to seem a little fuzzy, like the bad option in an eye exam. The temperature is starting to drop, too, and the wind whips up with a chill. Many of the people on the peak shuffle over to face west. Because of the 360-degree view from the peak, we’ll be able to see the eclipse’s shadow approach.

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Fuzzy shadow: This photo was taken just a few minutes before totality. Photo / The Munro Review

Darker still. Three minutes to totality. It looks and feels like a few minutes before sunset on an ordinary day. Looking through my solar filter on my camera, I can see that the moon has crawled to an almost completely dominant position, with just a sliver of sun remaining. Yet it’s incredible to think that even that tiny bit of sun can still cast enough light and warmth to keep darkness at bay.

5.

The shadow comes. It’s like an encroaching storm. It starts far in the distance, in the haze that we’re told is the ocean, and then it just seems to encompass half the sky. It’s less the dramatic CGI effect you’d expect in a movie and more an overwhelming shift in the tonal landscape. I don’t want to miss totality, so I race to my camera and get ready to take off my solar filter.

6.

And then it’s dark. Not the dark of deepest night, but of husky twilight. The stars come out. Cheers, hollers, hugs, kisses. A young man takes a cellphone picture and then pesters his friends — “Look at this one! Look at this one!” — during these precious fleeting seconds.

Determined not to waste the moment in the same way with my eye on a screen, I make one adjustment on my camera (changing the shutter speed), push for multiple exposures and then, for the first time in my life, I look directly at the sun.

What surprises me is how foreboding it seems. Many people talk of the beauty of the eclipse, and I see that, but it is a harrowing beauty. In totality, a prismatic strip of horizon is a 360-degree rim, as if dusk is in all directions. The other mountains step forward from their background haze, achieving a backlight foreground gravitas. Planets and stars glint in the sky, reminding us that they have always been there with the sun whether we realized their stations or not.

Photographs of the sun’s corona taken during a total solar eclipse don’t capture the rawness of the experience, the ominous bent to the effect. The moon’s mountains and ridges in outline give it a slightly jagged, unkempt, feral look as it smothers the sun. The dark circle is an eye peering down, all-seeing, on the hushed landscape below.

I know now why many cultures feared eclipses. They can be terrifying.

7.

The end of totality comes with a sharp jab of light in the corner of the silhouetted moon. A slight sound from the crowd, a mix of a communal sigh and a groan. The planets and stars disappear, the dusk belt falls away. The mountains step back. The 100 seconds are gone.

8.

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From totality to the end of the eclipse: Kent keeps his glasses on. Photo / The Munro Review

Surprise No. 1: I expect people at the peak to follow the cycle to conclusion, to stay with the sun as it slowly regains its upper hand over the moon. But many start packing up within the first 15 or 20 minutes after totality ends. By 10:30 a.m., a steady stream of people heads for the trail. I would have expected this at a more casual eclipse-watching spot, one for which people didn’t get up at 4 a.m. and ride a school bus 40 minutes up a mountain for a premium view. To me, totality was spectacular, yes, but not the end.

Kent keeps his eclipse glasses on from just after totality to the very end, never taking his shielded eyes off the sun, watching as this ancient cycle — this lifetime event — makes a grand and dignified exit. I admire his persistence and commitment to be immersed in the experience. As the nearly hour of partial eclipse following totality ticks down, the moon’s bite out of the sun becomes ever smaller. In the last few minutes, just before the sun becomes whole again, the four of us commemorate the moment by holding hands and gazing until normalcy returns.

9.

Surprise No. 2: The crystal ball, uncovered for a moment during totality to “absorb” the very special moonlight, went to hide under its towel again when the sun returned. But in the countdown leading up to the end of the partial eclipse, the ball is inadvertently uncovered. Looking skyward with our eclipse glasses, the four of us don’t notice that, of course.

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Well-traveled crystal ball: Note how it turns the horizon upside down. Photo / The Munro Review

Nan suddenly says, “Is someone cooking marshmallows?”

I am about to agree, dreamily thinking of camping and smores, then come to reality with a start. I jerk off my glasses and shout: “I see smoke!”

The crystal ball, dosed with that powerful sunlight, has actually burned a hole in the towel.

Which is how I almost marked the Great American Eclipse of 2017 by starting a forest fire.

10.

The few of us still at the peak straggle down the hill to the last remaining bus.

I think about a lecture I’d heard a few days before by Dr. Randy Milstein, an Oregon State University astronomy professor. He told us why our sun is slowly growing in size. It has to do with what he called, in layman’s terms, the sun’s “exchange rate.” It burns its fuel (hydrogen), and as that fuel decreases, the sun must continually burn a little brighter and hotter to maintain the same energy exchange. Think of it this way, Milstein told us: You exchange a U.S. dollar for a Canadian one and lose a little something in the transaction. Then you exchange it back. Keep doing that and you’ll someday run out of money. (In the case of the sun, in about a billion years.)

The key to all this is that the sun gives us something: heat and light. And, someday, it will pay for that gift by collapsing on itself.

We take the sun for granted. It’s so all-powerful, really, that we can’t look at it, even for a quick peek, as if it’s some dreadful and vengeful god. Yet who among us cannot attest to the utter bliss of a lazy few hours on some beautiful day lounging in the sun, letting the warmth bathe and fill us?

There are some definitions of adulthood that suggest it comes when you finally see your own parents as complicated human beings in their own right rather than just nurturer and protector to their offspring. Walking down the hill after gazing at my sun for the very first time, I think about how my own relationship to it has changed in subtle ways. The sun was there, and it was gone for a moment, and now it’s back, making me sweat on my trek down from the peak. It feels good.


Related story

From solar filters to goat yoga, Corvallis preps for eclipse: At Oregon State University, a weekend of events leads up to Monday’s big moment in total darkness


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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

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