Here’s the thing — whenever there is one of those celestial events it seems as if 99 percent of the time we’re greeted with thick, impenetrable cloud cover. This was my reasoning upon returning from the BWCA a couple of summers ago when the huge solar eclipse turned everyone I seemed to know into sun god nomads. A photographer friend made a beautiful horizontal portrayal of the eclipse, and others still talk about it with delighted wonder. They speak of a 360 degree sunset I can barely imagine and the thrills of actually being in such an eclipitical moment.
Me? I ventured over to the Prairie Wood Environmental Learning Center and squatted in the bluestem prairie waiting for perhaps some of the magic. Obviously on the extreme edge of magical bliss. I found it sorely lacking, no blame to the ELC. I hopped in my car and sped up Highway 71 to Sibley State Park, where the park naturalist, perhaps feeling sorry for me, loaned me her solar safety glasses. It was just in time to see the last eighth of the moon shadow.
Eclipses aren’t the half of it. Twice I’ve made trips to photograph Northern Lights. Once was flying to visit a former exchange student and friend in Tromso, Norway. We would rest much of the day before heading out into the nearby mountains away from the city lights and into deep early February darkness in hopes of catching one of those outlandish dancing rays of other otherworldly pigmentation. In our nearly week-long excursions we had about 15 minutes of visualizing the lights peeking through small holes in windblown clouds. My other trip was to a resort on the Gunflint Trail along the Minnesota-Canadian border with a beautiful exposure to the north across a barren, ice-choked lake. Unlike farm country, the wilderness was free of light “pollution.” Well, we did catch a glimpse of a wolf, although the skies were either completely clear with no Aurora or blanketed with a dense, snowy cloud cover.
Thankfully the last comet that came through lasted nearly a month in the darkened universal canvas, long enough to plan some pictures including reflections in the calmed surface of a Minnesota lake.
Several years ago, though, in my last (and incredibly short) marriage, we sat outside of what has become my patio in lawn chairs with a bottle of Cabernet, holding hands as we sat through a visible lunar eclipse. Afterwards I made a social network comment expressing my second thoughts about not recording the eclipse with my camera. To which an old friend and chief photographer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Brian Peterson, wrote, “Sometimes John it’s perfectly okay to simply enjoy such things that happen in life. You don’t always need to have a camera in hand.”
This time I was fully prepared, although I must admit my trepidation after watching schooner clouds pass by all afternoon. Which brings me to our very last lunar eclipse this past Sunday night. Fortunately the first half of the show labeled as the “blood moon” lunar eclipse was going to happen within a time frame conducive to “old men hours.” Amazingly we hit that special one percent of cloudless skies so I could see and photograph such a special milestone in the adventures of larger life! However, there was no hint of spine-tingle that I was acutely aware of, although seeing the moon turn bloody looking was both interesting and special.
What transpired mentally as I sat in the chair typically used in my photography blind was trying to imagine thoughts of those preceding us in both time and technology. With the earth’s shadow slowly but surely edging over the surface of the moon I wondered if there were thoughts that perhaps the world was coming to an end? Were there thrills the following morning to awaken to find yet another day had arrived complete with blue skies and sunshine?
Historians believe one of the earliest “recorded” eclipses happened in November of 3340 B.C. after a series of circular and spiral shaped petroglyphs were found in County Meath, Ireland, along with charred human bones beneath a stone basin of what is now the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument. Scientists have wondered if there is a correlation, although they have no answers. Apparently the charred humans weren’t part of the petroglyphic history.
A thousand or so years later was one of the earliest solar eclipses, believed to be in 2134 B.C., as recorded in ancient Chinese documents, an eclipse event that supposedly was believed to be the result of a large dragon eating the sun. This nearly corresponds with Hsi and Ho, two royal and supposedly loyal astronomers who were ordered by Yu, the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty, to fend off this fearful sun-eating dragon but chose to get drunk instead. The displeased Yu then chose to have them beheaded.
Speeding ahead toward more “modern” times, wars and even the Crucifixion of Jesus may have had ties to lunar eclipses. In and around 413 B.C., at the height of the Peloponnesian War, in a decades long struggle between Athens and Sparta, the superstitious Athens commander, Nicias, decided to hold off a safe departing because of a lunar eclipse. This prompted the Syracusians to then attack, overcome and weaken the Athenians stronghold on the Mediterranean which marked the eventual demise of Athenian dominance.
Concerning Christ, Christian gospels suggest the sky darkened after the crucifixion which astronomers believe may have coincided with an eclipse. The “event” was apparently married to astronomical records in the years 29 C.E. to 32 C.E., records which historians have used in trying to pinpoint the death of Jesus.
So much for the past. For the time being the future looks promising for fans who seek pilgrimages for such events of the vast universe, all right here in our very own galaxy. On April 8, 2024 our next solar eclipse will cross through Mexico, the United States and Canada, from Mazatlán heading northeasterly through Texas and several other states en route to the border between Maine and eastern Canada. It’s estimated the maximum duration of totality will be about four and a half minutes. Of course, cloudy weather in the northeastern states and Canada may block views of the eclipse, so what else is new?
Just in case you’re wondering, our next lunar eclipse is scheduled for September 7, 2025, and yes, the United States is right in the middle of the expected earth shadow. The western half of Alaska and the tip of Nova Scotia might see a partial event but the rest of us in this broad slice of the planet, from pole to pole, should have a front row seat … pending a lack of cloud cover.
Before one gets the idea that these soulful celestial events are forever certainties, consider this: Scientists conclude that we are living at an extraordinary time and place within our unique universe where total solar and lunar eclipses are even possible. They warn that this will not always be the case, as gravitational interaction between our planet and its moon is causing the moon to slowly ebb away from Earth into vast universal darkness at a rate of nearly an inch and a half a year! So within 500 to 600 million years they estimate the moon will appear much too small in our sky for there to be another total solar or lunar eclipse sighting on Earth ever again. So, folks, plan accordingly. You can’t say you haven’t been forewarned.