I shall only say that I have passed a varied and eventful life, that it has been my fortune to see earth, heavens, ocean, and man in most of their aspects; but never have I beheld any spectacle which so plainly manifested the majesty of the Creator, or so forcibly taught the lesson of humility to man as a total eclipse of the sun. James Fenimore Cooper, The Eclipse
On August 22, 2017, a large portion of the United States was witness to a total eclipse of our sun. In a swath some sixty miles wide, running from Washington to South Carolina, nightfall came progressively across this path in the middle of the afternoon. The rest of the country experienced various degrees of the eclipse, with accurate scientific predictions beforehand of the percentage of the sun that the moon would cover in sundry locales. Everybody wins, and although totality was only a fleeting few minutes even directly in the path, we all would see some of the eclipse. That was the word, but the reality of the event was not written so precisely but rather painted in much broader strokes.
In the portion of my home state of New Jersey where I reside, the moon would cover about three quarters of the sun. So we would experience something unique, but short of what was seen in other places directly in the path. Some family members had gathered on a farm in western Oregon for an eclipse watch camping trip, and had the textbook experience: sudden darkness, temperature drop, and eerie light in stages as the eclipse waned. The renown nature writer Anne Dillard wrote about viewing the 1979 eclipse near the same area in her essay Total Eclipse in her book “Teaching a Stone to Talk.”
The long range forecasts had looked favorable for clear skies here on the east coast, so optimism was high for the event and the sale of eclipse viewing glasses was brisk. But as August 21st drew closer, things got a little cloudier, literally. Clear skies coast to coast were hardly a meteorological possibility, but now larger numbers of people, millions on the east coast in fact, would not have anything coming close to prime viewing conditions. Here on the east coast we would experience an “unastonomical sky”, as no less a naturalist than Alexander Von Humboldt had described unfavorable viewing conditions during a Latin American eclipse. But undeterred, I and tens of thousands of like-minded skywatchers, chose to follow the Marine Corps slogan: Improvise, Adapt & Overcome. So with backpacks stuffed with cameras, viewing glasses, camp chairs and water, we set out to view the eclipse from atop Blueberry Hill.
Not to be confused with the fictional mound in Fats Domino’s iconic song, this Blueberry Hill was quite real. It is the centerpiece of the Blueberry Hill Conservation Area, a popular local hiking and biking area, a part of the county greenway initiative. At roughly 200’ above sea level, it trails by less than 50, feet the highest four points in the entire southern portion of the state. To be sure, Sir Edmund Hillary did not train on Blueberry Hill for the first successful summit of Mount Everest. But in the flatlands that are the Atlantic coastal plain, it offers some nice views through the pines, oaks, laurels and rhododendrons that comprise much of the vegetation on this sandy hill. And situated next to a former gravel quarry pit, the opportunity to view the open sky from the cover of the forest canopy, a key consideration on a humid summer afternoon. And while the Philadelphia skyline is visible from the east ridge, the western views are towards the ocean forty miles away, non- visible but always in your consciousness in this neck of the woods.
On the afternoon of the 21st as we pulled into the gravel lot below Blueberry Hill, there was just enough sunshine coming through the cloud cover to suggest sunglasses. But what did become clear as we walked through the marshy access to the hill, was that the we were in the improvisational and adaptation phase of our plan. The winding trails that lead to the top of the hill offer a couple of different surfaces, and we followed a familiar one, sandy and comparatively steep. We wound our way to the plateau that comprises the summit, and chose a shaded spot beneath a few pitch pines and white oaks on the edge of the old quarry. The sun, peeking intermittently through the clouds, still rode high in the August sky at 2:05 PM.
As we got comfortable in our little “eclipse camp” I began to record a some notes in the light that filtered through the branches. A few birds were chirping in the thicker brush behind us and a single butterfly, a tiger swallowtail, flitted amongst the milkweed on the edge of the hilltop. A pleasant breeze wafted up from the south, and within twenty minutes or so, a few buzzing flies visited our position.
A lone gull circled over the shallow, muddy pond that had formed at the bottom of the quarry. That small anomaly in a sea of sand and gravel mounds and potholes, was formed by the percolating aquifer, and enhanced by rain and snowmelt. Over time a familiar process will take place and this quarry will become one of many in the state that fills and becomes a lake, artificially constructed as it were, but filled eventually by nature. In Augusts yet to come, gulls will be joined by herons, egrets, swallows, redwing blackbirds, red-bellied turtles, bullfrogs, bluegills, pumpkinseeds & bass.
By 2:30 there is enough light to see the shadow of the moon partially obscuring the sun between the clouds. But there is still enough light so that the shadow of the pine tree in front of me is still sharply defined on the ground. Two crows are calling to each other now from the woods to the southeast, and I hear but do not see an aircraft above. I wonder in what way, if any, their view is different than mine. By 2:45 the crescent shadow on the moon was perceptibly receding. The light at this point, and throughout the event, had varied little, and it was never darker than a normal overcast day. Something small scrabbled in the underbrush, and another swallowtail appeared. Both creatures moving right to left, the same path the moon was tracing across the face of the sun. Having seen photos from the eclipse in its totality in the western states earlier today, I remembered some of what Anne Dillard had written of her eclipse experiences during a couple of events. She compared a partial eclipse to a total eclipse, to flying in an airplane and falling out of an airplane, the one not in any way preparing you for the other. I knew I was missing what wasn’t available to me, but I tried not to miss what was.
The minutes passed and Blueberry Hill became noticeably quieter. Other than the sound of breeze passing through the tree, one had to strain to hear the faraway call of a cardinal or the trill of a robin. As I pondered whether or not light variations that were too slight for me to observe, might be affecting other life forms, a red blinking light commenced on the radio tower at the old military installation across the quarry. Was that a photosensitive reaction, a malfunction, or just a timer kicking on? I walked along the hilltop edge, trying to sense any other indicators that something was different, but other than the silence, I concluded there was not. As 4:00 arrived, the only notable change in the environment was increasing silence. Even the other small group of observers some forty meters away, had grown quieter, eventually trekking away silently. There had not been an ooh or ahh moment, but the experience was unique though definitely subtle. Sometimes the finest of nature or ourselves, is just so.
We took a longer route down off the hill, encountering a squirrel or two and a few leopard frogs on the far side of the swamp. A warbler could be heard now and then, and towhees and sparrows were darting among the branches, and a scolding blue jay sat on the post of the trailhead marker. Perhaps what I witnessed this afternoon was the world pausing, almost imperceptibly, for the rife st of moments. I gathered the eclipse viewing J glasses from our group ad slipped them into an envelope in my backpack. I sent the glasses to Astronomers Without Borders (astronomerswithoutborders.org) where they will be distributed to school children in South America in time for the eclipse that will cross that continent in 2019. As they look at the world through these same lenses on that day, I wonder what they will see?
Photo by he author