For a few hours, the social media chaos died down, people were not possessed by their screens, and the pull of the outdoors was stronger than the air conditioned office. The photos that were posted to social media were of children wearing goofy glasses, the sun with a bite out of it, or little half moon shapes where normal dappled sunlight was just an hour before. The comments were of awe and enthusiasm and wonder.
There were a few who sort of mocked the excitement. All in all though, I find it reassuring that a completely natural phenomenon, the likes of which has been seen before and will be seen again, brought people out. It brought them outside, out of their shells, and out of the electronic stupor that seems to consume modern life.
The moments of natural wonder, (not necessarily surprise because it was no secret exactly when, where and how this eclipse was going to happen), are connecting moments. They connect parent and child, people and nature, couples, coworkers, and even politicians. And in that moment, both of wonder and connection, a seed is planted. A thought, tucked into minds to wait, and hopefully germinate. It can be one of curiosity, fascination, skepticism, introspection, or nostalgia. It might ultimately generate more questions.
Like, what did our ancestors think of eclipses?
They didn’t have newspapers, television, or the internet to tell them what was going to happen. Many saw them as signs from the gods, a warning, or a sign of impending doom. Christopher Columbus used a lunar eclipse to manipulate the native Jamaican people once upon a time. Columbus’s men had started to steal from the tribe who had been taking care of them and so the native people stopped caring for the explorers. Columbus consulted his almanac and told the people that the gods were angry with them and would turn the moon blood red that night. Needless to say, the tribesmen began caring for the sailors again. Aristotle saw the Earth’s shadow moving across the moon and concluded that the Earth must be round in order to cast a round shadow. Those are just a few, there are more.
Or, how does nature react to an eclipse?
As the sky darkened, the light became, well, weird. It wasn’t like dusk, when the lower angle of the sun casts different wavelengths that we associate with evening. It was just…weak. It made me a bit uneasy. It was as if the sun itself had sunglasses on and the light just couldn’t quite get through. Depending on the depth of a solar eclipse, animals will act as if it is evening. Crickets may start to chirp if the time of year is right, birds may fly to their roosts, foxes and coyotes may start to bark.
I wonder if there is enough time for salamanders to emerge, or for owls to awake? Do sunflowers that follow the sun get confused on a cellular level? Perhaps they simply think a storm is coming and think nothing more.
As the questions and thoughts ruminate in our minds, I am reminded of the more common natural phenomena that occur, no less remarkable. Caring for caterpillars this month, I still remain transfixed as they turn from squishy caterpillar into jeweled chrysalis, and at emergence, when the clear walls split and give way to a wrinkled form that soon dries and stretches into the familiar Monarch. It only takes a minute or two, and if I am lucky enough to catch that moment, it is captivating. Magical. Baffling. Wondrous. And annual.
At Day Camp this year the campers were intending to go pond dipping, but they stumbled across a cicada. It started to emerge from its skin and they were hooked. Pond dipping would have to wait, this moment was stronger. Almost intoxicating. The same campers got to watch a snake eat a frog and every kid announced that first to their parent upon dismissal, the opportunity of being able to witness that moment was a true gift, and the kids knew it.
I often lament how much time kids, and adults for that matter, spend inside. Very little is going to happen inside the house or office that is considered a phenomena. Once you set foot out in the natural world, it is all poised on the brink, it is simply a matter of time before wonder finds you. A bird building a nest. A spider spinning a web. A moth wriggling out of its cocoon. A primrose spiraling open at dusk. The cricket who sings his song according to temperature. The firefly that carries its bioluminescence through the air, speaking a secret language.
It thrills me, flutters my heart, that so many people were excited about the eclipse. People that don’t usually get even remotely energized by the natural world were out and about, looking, experiencing, connecting. Such a huge following for an ancient natural event, I want people to remember this.
Standing side by side, chins tipped up to the sky, we all turned our gaze to a spectacle that it so much greater than our daily life, yet no more miraculous than a bird pecking its way out of an egg. My mother called me, excited, “Its starting! It’s already a crescent!” My coworker said, with some genuine surprise, “Well, that’s pretty neat.” (That’s enthusiastic for him, really). A friend online who was in the path of totality said “That was one of the coolest things ever.” In wonder we watched nature do its thing, connected across the continent by the same sun and the same moon.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at ACNC.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.