In the early hours of Monday morning, in the pitch black English autumn cold, I hauled myself out of bed, and snuck out of my parents’ house (it’s been a while since I did that!)… to witness my first eclipse.
It was ‘only’ a lunar eclipse. Solar eclipse fans will tell me this is a meager event by comparison, but it was pretty spectacular to me and it got me thinking…
Now I am no astronomer, but I have been learning the basics thanks to the astronomy tours client I’ve been working with (The Independent Traveller – shameless plug!). And I’m no astrophotographer, but again I’ve been learning the basics due to my recent writing work with Phil Hart (author of ‘Shooting Stars’) so I persuaded my brother-in-law (a brilliant photographer but also a doctor who was on call the following night – sorry Pete!) to join me and we headed out with our tripods into the night.
I’ll admit to struggling in the darkness to change lenses and get the settings right. Messing about with infinity focus, live view and bulb mode did cause some anxiety in the still, calm of the small hours! But I thoroughly enjoyed the learning and was so focused on taking shots that I failed to notice two things – first, how very cold my hands and feet had become and second what a profound effect the whole thing was having on me. It was only in hindsight that I could really appreciate the whole experience (one of the key reasons why I so love writing and photography – for their ability to freeze time and record a moment I may otherwise struggle to review in years to come. They allow us to be about as close to immortal as we can get, but let’s get back to the eclipse…)
It was so clear, and bright we could hardly believe our luck as the penumbral shadow turned the silvery moon an autumnal red. Silhouetted trees and a zillion stars set the backdrop. An owl hooted from the darkness of the earth as we turned our faces and our lenses to the sky. It was a gentle process; the passing of ships in the night – only this was planets. Huge chunks of universe aligning in such a way that we could actually see the effect. We could see the movement, the rotation. It is enough to make anyone feel small and humble.
It is almost overwhelming. And when you learn some of the statistics it seems so incredible as to be beyond belief. (One of my favourites, recently learned as I write about the solar eclipse coming up over Tanzania next year, is that the Moon is around 400 times smaller than the Sun, but also roughly 400 times closer to Earth, making it possible for the two to align and for the Sun to be completely concealed during a solar eclipse. I’m sure there are equally stunning lunar eclipse facts.) But the common feeling is that we are small and insignificant, the moments are fleeting and that very little matters in this ‘grand scheme.’
The following morning I woke to another day… and Facebook! Now I’ve written about Facebook before and my concerns with it. But today it reminded me of our connections. Far from feeling small and insignificant, I realised our power and unity. Millions of people had watched the eclipse. Thousands had taken incredible photographs of it. We are all trying to play out our roles as best we can in this giant, daunting universe and so many of us all over the world united in this one eerie moment. Imagine what it must have looked like from space to see all those humans scattered around the world peering up at the sky, all focused on the moon. What a powerful energy we directed out there in the middle of the night. How lucky we are to be able to witness such incredible beauty.
These eclipses happen regularly. A stupid statement perhaps, but I find it rather incredible that it has taken me more than thirty years to take the time to see one, and also that our planets align in various formations on a timetable. Eclipses can be predicted for millennium to come! It is reassuring in some way, and also somewhat metaphorical. I have often felt that shift in life when things seem to adjust – for good or bad – and it seems to me it can only be positive when there are occasions, however brief, where everything lines up. Perhaps for others it is more about the light returning after the darkness (certainly ancient cultures saw it that way), but for me it was about being able to physically see the alignment that was so stunning and comforting. An experience I highly recommend. Positive in every respect.
Now how do I get myself to Tanzania to watch the solar eclipse next Sept?!