Editor's Note: Even eclipses are eclipsed by clouds, chatter

By Richard Wiens, The Triplicate May 19, 2012 01:00 am

Size matters. So do clouds.

I’m as excited as the next person about Sunday’s annular eclipse. I’ve got my solar viewing glasses ready and I’m not going to abandon hope just because the weather forecast keeps graying.

Still, catching the show on the beach is looking iffy. It’s probably time to consider a backup plan for an inland viewing point — if we’re not completely socked in.

As for size, this event occurs when the moon is far off and thus incapable of completely blocking the sun, even though it’ll be right in front of it. If the moon were nearer it’d be bigger, and thus we’d have what’s known as a total eclipse — a cosmic event.

Gather ’round and let this old man tell a story:

It was Feb. 26, 1979, and I awoke in the path of totality about two hours before a show for the ages. Alas, Portland was overcast, and that wouldn’t do. My wife, some friends and I piled into a car and headed east in a desperate search for blue sky. We found a clear patch in Hood River and perched ourselves on a hill with only a few minutes to spare. The sun was already more than half-gone — it was still daylight, but not broad daylight.

Things that never happen started happening. The temperature dropped fast — apparently the reason why fluffy clouds started perceptibly rising. Morning twilight darkened by the second, but there was still enough light to gaze west as the moon shadow sped toward us.

Pfffft. The switch was thrown. At maybe 8:30 a.m., it was the middle of the night. We turned around and beheld a jagged black ball in the east, discernable from the sky’s blackness only because it was ringed with flames.

The fact is that at the height of a total eclipse you can look directly at the sun — because it’s not there. Its penumbra brilliantly illuminated the edges of the moon, which was not so perfectly round after all.

Birds, nervously squawking moments earlier about the unexpected onset of twilight, went silent. But some human beings never stop talking.

Shortly after our arrival on the hill, the elderly couple who owned the property had strolled up to see what we were doing there. They stuck around for the spectacle, and during the two minutes or so of exquisite totality, they chattered about another eclipse they had experienced decades earlier.

The rest of us, awash in celestial reverence, begrudgingly acknowledged their recollections at the proper moments while wishing they would shut up.

Looking back, I see it as the story of life in a microcosm. Every second we are immersed in the wonder of existence, and almost every second, we are distracted by our worldly concerns.

An hour later we were back in still-overcast Portland, where most people seemed to think the whole thing had been something of a bust.

Maybe they’ll have better luck next time around. Five years from now, the moon shadow from the first total eclipse of the sun visible in the United States since 1979 will touch down on American soil just south of Lincoln City, Ore. The path of totality will include my hometown of Salem.

I’ll be there, or wherever I can find blue sky nearby.

Size matters. So do clouds.