The Solar Eclipse: a Guest Post


(Solar Eclipse photos by Robin Mallgren, August 21, 2017, Corvallis, Oregon)

These are photos Robin took of the 2017 solar eclipse. She experienced the 1979 total solar eclipse near Goldendale, Washington, and it was a such a wondrous experience for her that she wanted to share this one with me. So, at the last minute, we packed up the Vanagon and headed north. We were welcomed to park in front of Owen and Jan Dell’s house in Corvallis, Oregon. Owen is a landscape architect we met when we recorded Cultivating a Suburban Woodshed (episode 123) back in 2006 in Santa Barbara. Now he’s bringing his gifted artistry to the Corvallis area.

We shared the one minute (!) of eclipse totality with friends and neighbors along the street. It was truly a cosmic moment. The sky gradually dimmed in way quite unlike an approaching sunset, and suddenly it was night. Streetlights popped on, a bright star appeared directly above us (we later learned it was Venus), and a huge cheer arose from the humans at the nearby park and streets.

I was moved to tears. Truly, a sacred moment. Time collapsed. I felt connected to the spirit of our far ancestors who experienced the sky going dark inexplicably in the middle of the day — wonderment, awe, fear: is this the end of the world? — and then joy and relief to see the sun re-emerge from its momentary hiding place. No wonder ancient sacred sites and astronomers paid attention to the journeys of the sun!

Owen wrote a thoughtful and amusing blog about the event, which he’s permitting me to share here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Reflections on the Eclipse (text and photos by Owen Dell)

If you ever find yourself tasked to predict the population density of visitors to an eclipse, take our experience as an object lesson and dial back your numbers to about 20% of whatever you are thinking. Those claiming to be in the know had predicted that half a million people would descend on our little county, so we were all on edge and girding ourselves for a difficult time. A couple of hours prior to totality I rode my bike up through the riverside park near our house, where the City Parks Department had arranged several hundred campsites for the use of visitors. We had expected to endure a small ad hoc city there, complete with crime, squalor, drunkenness, cannibalism, and mountains of rubbish, like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

As you can see in the photos below, things were a great deal more bucolic than anyone had come to anticipate (Speaking of paintings, George Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” is included for comparison, the crowd in the painting being somewhat denser and perhaps a little wilder than ours.)


There is something in the human mind that will make a catastrophe out of any impending event, perseverating over an imagined scene of horror absent any evidence that it will become a reality. As one reporter noted in today’s paper, if you add up all the hotel rooms, campsites, curbside RV sleepovers, tents pitched in people’s back yards, and any other accommodations here in Benton County and then multiply by a reasonable number of occupants, you will not come anywhere near the predicted head count. The vaunted power grid collapse, lack of cell service, water shortages, and crime did not happen. The visitors didn’t drink the river dry or breathe up all the air. As far as I know nobody died or was unable to get emergency help. The town was not consumed by fire.

We all fell for the dystopian story and then watched with growing incredulousness as the roads failed to gridlock, the stores didn’t run out of food, and the sidewalks didn’t crumble under the footfall of hundreds of thousands of visiting Californians. Compared to a typical game day, this was quieter and the people were better behaved. The good news is that merchants did profit from all the pre-event shopping done by locals who seem to have all stocked up on toilet paper, hundred pound bags of rice and beans, gunpowder, bear traps, and Tasers.

For a couple of hours prior to the start of the eclipse, one expensive private jet after another took off from our nearby little airport, flying low over our house at the start of what were apparently numerous cross-continental flights following the path of totality.

Here on our street the mood was convivial. We have been hosting friends from Nevada City, filmmakers, one of whom, Robin, is an astronomer as well.

A wind came up before totality, possibly a result of the eclipse’s earlier cooling effect on the coastal climate 50 miles away, generating an onshore breeze that is more typical of summer evenings here. As darkness grew, the birds got wiggy, nervously flocking in the trees, and the colors of things became other-worldly and strange. I brought out two colanders to make constellations of tiny eclipse shadows on the garage door.

Leaves of the trees caused weird shadows on the walls and pavement.

Looking through the glasses, all one sees is the crescenting sun, covered by a moon that is utterly invisible.

It so happens that the size of the moon and its distance from the earth make it the perfect cover for the sun, like a lens cap, leaving only the beautiful corona. If the moon were larger or closer to us the corona too would disappear, and if it were smaller or farther away there would be no real totality.

It all took place so fast that it was hard to adjust to. It’s not difficult to understand how primitive people must have felt, having no explanation for what would have been, in the absence of oral history, an unprecedented and terrifying phenomenon. Just before totality my neighbor, a good-hearted guy, put on some crappy rock music, which spoiled things a bit. At totality a cheer went up from all quarters; I could imagine this cry rolling across the continent as the darkness moved eastward.

I looked around at my garden and house, barely visible, and tried to react to this brief, extraordinary moment. The temperature dropped and it was as much like nighttime as one could expect. Not having any virgins to sacrifice, someone swatted at a couple of flies that had landed on a wall; it seemed to have an effect because a speck of light appeared on the upper right quadrant of the corona, followed quickly by an inverted crescent, moving much faster than I would have thought. For a brief moment it was possible to feel the reality of these three orbs – earth, moon, and sun – hurtling through space, each on its particular path.

As the light returned I walked out to the street, where people were gathering in the afterglow. Someone a few doors up and across the street had set up a big telescope and we all looked through it. The three sisters from up the block, animated little munchkins who prowl the street daily in all kinds of weather, our free range bearers of good cheer and giddy chatter, marched around with a plate of brownies they had made, making sure everyone got one. The mailman showed up on schedule, and the girls ran over to give him a brownie.

Our other guest, Janaia, grabbed the empty plate and licked it clean, to the delight of the little baker.

One of the other girls made a mask out of the colander.

And we all gathered around this flower, where three bees had gone to sleep, all facing east.

After a while everyone drifted off and the day resumed its normal course, as if nothing had happened.

Today I find myself wishing for a replay, but there is no way to reconstitute the experience in its fullness. It seemed too fast, too unreal, too fleeting to really take in, like something you see out of the corner of your eye and look over just as it passes from view. Looking out at my back yard just now, I can imagine that in the old times people would perhaps lose faith in the regularity of things, watching suspiciously for further failures of the sunlight. It shakes one’s world, even knowing what happened. The light seems untrustworthy, fragile, and contingent.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this article and essay. Sharing our stories is a great communication tool and pieces like these spread appreciation for the natural wonders of this world and other issues regarding the environment.

  2. Updating this story, I will add that as soon as people left, the parks department combed the campsite looking for litter and managed to aggregate but one single trash bag full in an area occupied just minutes before by a couple thousand revelers. That says something heartening about people, doesn’t it? The parks supervisor stood at the exit as people left and nearly everyone rolled down their windows and thanked him for a wonderful experience. I’m afraid I may have to give up my cynicism in the face of such overwhelming gentility.


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