“The universe includes all the seemingly “empty” space between our planet and everything else. For the most part, what connects us with the rest of the universe is light.” -National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to the Night Sky
Two years ago I purchased the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to the Night Sky to learn to navigate by the stars. I thought it could help me get unlost should I ever find myself staring up at the sky and wondering how to deliver myself from wherever it was that I didn’t want to be.
Afterward I slid the copy onto a bookshelf where it remained – untouched – until earlier this month. An ideal time to read it would have been over Thanksgiving when D and I drove 430 miles to Big Bend National Park to unfurl our sleeping bags under the stars and hike the Chisos Mountains. Instead, while we were enveloped in the blackness that is the desert after sunset, the field guide was securely nestled between Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and Gretel Ehrlich’s The Future of Ice.
The night we arrived I stood a few hundred feet from the Rio Grande and scanned the heavens for the Little Dipper. I look for it wherever I am standing. The Little Dipper is the first constellation I learned to locate from my backyard in New England. It was the first time I learned how to orient myself using light.
There was a brief period my freshman year in college that I thought studying astronomy sounded neat. However, the introductory course scared the shit out of me. Every class I sat for 90 minutes in terrified silence while the fate of the universe was discussed: it could continue expanding until all the fuel in the stars is exhausted and space grows cold and dark. Or. It could contract and destroy all that had been. I didn’t care for either option.
I would gaze at my peers calmly scribbling notes in the front row or napping in the back corner and wonder why no one seemed disturbed by any of this. We were doomed! Weren’t they listening? My problem, well, one of my problems, was having to wrestle with concepts of time and speed. Particularly the quantities you must speak of to get anywhere in space.
Consider sunlight. It takes eight minutes to reach Earth. Rays from our closest neighboring star – Proxima Centauri – don’t reach our atmosphere for four years. When I learned that the Great Red Spot – the distinctive mark on Jupiter – is a storm that’s lasted for the past 300 years, I just couldn’t imagine raging that long.
For me, astronomy didn’t inspire awe. Studying space only made me think of death and an eternity of darkness. After looking at slides of supernovas and pulsars I would exit onto the street, cross off another date on my syllabus, and know the end was a tad closer than before. It took the passing of my grandmother a few years later for me to look into the night sky with wonder.
This month I finally opened the field guide to read up on the constellations after D and I booked a camping trip to hill country. I got stuck on the primer about the universe after reading a passage on total solar eclipses. It prompted me to comb the national archives online for expeditions about viewing solar eclipses. I think I just wanted to know how people respond when all the lights are turned off.
Many early societies interpreted total solar eclipses to be the work of unhappy gods. They often took on a divine significance. In 585 B.C. a solar eclipse is credited for ending a five-year war between the Lydians and Medes in what is present day Turkey. More recent accounts share the same narrative the moment the sky darkens and the sun is blanketed by the moon: Animals stop eating. People stop talking. And everything waits for something to change.
What makes total solar eclipses special is that they are visible only to those individuals located within a narrow band of the moon’s shadow as it sweeps across the earth. The corridor is about 100 miles wide and a few thousand miles long. The sun is completely covered by the moon anywhere from two to eight minutes, a period known as totality.
Some people chase paths of totality. For over a century people have traveled to stand on a particular patch of ground to witness the moment when the sun, the earth, and the moon align. One famous eclipse chaser was David Todd, an astronomy professor from Amherst, Massachusetts who had a bit of unlucky streak in the 1880s. In 1887, he led an expedition to Japan to photograph the corona of the sun during a total solar eclipse. His team spent weeks assembling the equipment in a remote town and within hours prior to the eclipse, a volcano 25 miles in the distance awakened, sending forth a screen of smoke. Todd’s wife Mabel described the scene in her book Total Eclipses of the Sun.
“Not a word was spoken. Even the air was motionless, as if all nature sympathized with our pain and suspense. The useless instruments outlined their fantastic shapes dimly against the massing clouds, and a weird chill fell upon the earth … the prevailing mood was a sense of overwhelming helplessness. The crowd of friends Japanese, English, and American, breathed one mighty sigh from a universal heart just relieved of tension near to breaking. Then someone spoke, and so we faced common life again.”
Three years later, Todd was tapped to lead another scientific expedition to the West Coast of Africa. Twelve tons of astronomical equipment was loaded aboard the U.S.S. Pensacola in Brooklyn Navy Yard. Two months later naval officers carefully hauled the equipment ashore and watched as clouds took their seats across the sky. Eben J. Loomis, a crew member, was incredulous that an expedition organized by the U.S. government, and outfitted with the most precise instrumentation the world had yet to devise, was foiled by water vapor.
“On the occasion of a total solar eclipse the astronomer realizes, more fully perhaps than at any other time how insignificant a factor is man in the great processes and phenomena of Nature, – how entirely powerless to change even for a moment her highest dictate,” he wrote in his account of the trip An Eclipse Party in Africa. I couldn’t find a note about the professor’s feelings after the second botched trip other than a description that he seemed to accept the inevitable. I wonder if years later he ever stood on his back porch during clear winter nights and just laughed.
Now, my upcoming camping trip does not require sign off from the Navy or involve travel beyond my county. I will not have to protect my campsite from cannibals or wild beasts other than a few hungry squirrels. But it will be an adventure of sorts. And though stargazing in one’s backyard is less romantic than chasing the path of totality halfway around the world, there is something beautiful about learning to see what you can see. There is something comforting about looking up and knowing precisely where you are.