One of our most dear friends was Jerry Waxman. Jerry was a colleague I taught with at Santa Rosa Junior College for many years. He and I worked hard together to create an environmental studies program at the college; we also team-taught a class in environmental studies called Thinking Like a Mountain. Actually though, Jerry was more renowned at Santa Rosa Junior College as an astronomy instructor. He was a passionate and charismatic professor as well as a loving human being who seemed to attract devoted friends like a heavenly body. He was a lover of the stars and the San Francisco Giants. He had a wonderfully mischievous sense of humor. When we would teach environmental studies together he would sometimes say things to the class that he knew would provoke and annoy me as a philosopher because, well….he thought it was fun.
Jerry left us far too young in 2009, after a long battle with a degenerative disease related to Parkinson’s. Jerry especially loved the constellation Orion, and his family had a star in that constellation named after him. I don’t know whether Jerry would approve, but I still have conversations with him when I see Orion in the sky.
Jerry had made it clear to all of his friends (and students) that at some point in their lives, they absolutely had to see a total eclipse of the sun. He referred to it in ways I’ve heard mystical experiences described. He said, it could not be described in words. It could not even be understood through photographs or videos. It simply has to be experienced.
The first itinerary that Lois and I put together for our year abroad did not include Australia. Then Lois discovered that on the 14th of November, 2012, there would be a total eclipse of the sun centered near Cairns (pronounced ‘Cans’) in the northeastern tip of Australia (northern Queensland), and we immediately changed our plans…..in honor of Jerry.
There’s often great interest among Australians in spending time in Lake Tahoe, and we found a couple with a beautiful home just outside of Cairns, which they were interested in exchanging for our Tahoe place. We arrived only a couple of days before the eclipse and immediately began researching prime viewing spots as well as weather prospects. Cairns is in a gorgeous tropical location, bordered by the Pacific to the east and dense mountain rainforests to the west. We arrived just as the rainy season was starting in earnest. There was intermittent rain in Cairns when we arrived on Monday as well as the following day. Weather forecasts called for more of the same for Wednesday, the day of the eclipse. Jerry’s advice for viewing a solar eclipse had been to get to a mountaintop with a 360-degree view so that you can see not only the sun, but also the eclipse shadow as it races toward you at over 1000 miles per hour from the west. Unfortunately, the mountains of coastal Queensland, although quite high, are covered with rainforests and are typically cloudier and rainier than Cairns – very risky for eclipse viewing.
The day before the eclipse we decided to scout out the territory in the rain shadow to the west of those mountains in order to find a clearer viewing sky. West of the rainforests the terrain in Queensland certainly became drier, but we could see that the high coastal mountains that loomed to the east were covered with an apparently permanent mantle of high clouds, and would definitely eclipse our view of the eclipse, which was to take place shortly after sunrise when the sun was only 14 degrees above the eastern horizon. So we continued even farther west, but the roads hugged the valley floors and were rimmed by mountainous terrain. The territory was so remote that there were no side roads leading to the tops of mountains for broader vistas, and we were not inclined to set out on foot for the mountaintops in the pre-dawn darkness, given the reputation of the Australian outback as the habitat for the most lethal critters on earth. We had driven for two hours before we found a place where the eastern mountains were distant enough and the road elevated enough to afford a possible view of the eclipse, depending upon how far away from due east the sun would rise the next day. Still, scattered clouds hung in the sky despite the drier climate.
So we drove all the way back to the coast just north of our home near Cairns to check out the beaches as possible viewing sites. The sky was still somewhat cloudy, but clearer than it had been in the mountain rainforests. The scattered clouds were not much more prominent than they had been inland, and at least there was open sky all the way to the horizon. Still, although forecasters were predicting scattered clouds and intermittent showers both on the coast and well inland for the morning of the eclipse, they were of the opinion that cloud clover would be thinner and the probability of precipitation lower inland. What to do? We decided to sleep on it. We packed our eclipse watching gear into a backpack, put together a breakfast, set our alarm for 2 a.m. (in order to score a decent eclipse-watching spot), and went to bed.
We awoke (sort of) at two. I think I recall wondering out loud as I got out of bed whether we really had to go through all of this just to watch the sky turn dark. A brief rain shower battered the roof of the house. This did not bode well. We dressed, grabbed our stuff and got into the car. A mile down the road we still hadn’t decided whether to head inland or to the coast. When the road forced us to make a choice, Lois recommended heading to the coast first and checking out the sky there; this would still leave time to go inland if necessary. We arrived at Ellis Beach, walked out onto the sand, looked up, and Orion glittered down at us like white gemstones from almost straight above. I had no idea that Orion would be visible so high in the southern celestial hemisphere. We stayed – even though there were no stars visible toward the eastern horizon. It was an act of faith.
At 3 a.m. there were only a few other eclipse watchers visible through the darkness on the beach. We set out a blanket on the warm, tropical sand, lay on our backs and looked up at the Milky Way flowing from north to south along the crest of the heavens like a sparkling waterfall, brilliant in a sky blackened by a moon as new and dark as it can be. Spectacular shooting stars darted along the Milky Way. We saw the Southern Cross for only the third time in our lives, and we were able to get a fairly close fix on the eastern horizon, its stars still obscured by clouds. I had a silent conversation with Orion. I later learned that Lois had done the same.
Not long before 5 a.m. the southeastern horizon began to glow a very faint yellow, much farther south of due east than I’d anticipated. This was not good news because there was a thick band of ominously dark clouds in that part of the sky about 5 degrees above the horizon.
In the dim light, we now found that we were sharing the beach with hundreds of people who had slipped in during the last couple of hours like apparitions. At 5:30 the yellow tip of the sun lit up the southeastern horizon, glinting and glittering off the sea right next to the hills of an offshore island.
For the next 15 minutes sunrise was spectacular. If there had been no eclipse, the sunrise alone would have been worth sacrificing a night’s sleep for.
Although the sun still shone brilliantly, the eclipse was already in progress. The moon had just begun carving an arc into the top of the sun, although this was only visible through a filter. By 5:45 the sun had risen high enough to bury itself into the thick cloud bank, the only evidence of its presence an arc of rays reaching out past the clouds toward the eastern horizon.
The large cloud was creeping very slowly from south to north. Occasionally a small hole in the cloudbank would allow a small patch of sunlight through, but it would quickly pass by, replaced by ever thickening clouds, which obscured almost all signs of the sun at around 5:55.
The eclipse had been predicted to enter totality at 6:39; totality would last for just over two minutes. There appeared to be no way the sun would escape the clouds during that time. Beginning at 6:00 people began leaving the beach, presumably to drive to other beaches where the sun wasn’t obscured. Lois said they reminded her of fans of the San Francisco Giants who leave in the 7th inning simply because the Giants happen to be losing. Lois and I had once been with Jerry and his wife Pam in Ashland, Oregon watching a television broadcast of a World Series game between the Giants and the Angels in 2002. When all the Giants needed to do to win their first World Series since moving to San Francisco was to protect a five-run lead for the last few innings of the game, Lois and I left in order to attend a Shakespeare play. When we returned from the play, we learned that the Giants had blown the lead and lost the game, eventually going on to lose the whole World Series. Jerry always blamed that loss on Lois and me. There was no way we were going to leave the beach.
By 6:20 when I looked at the sky above and the people on the beach, it was as though a grayish film had seeped into the air.
The winds began to increase. (Jerry had mentioned that this is caused by the temperature and pressure differential created by the advancing moon shadow.) By 6:25 I was feeling profoundly frustrated. Our main purpose in coming to Australia had been to see this eclipse, and that purpose was being thwarted by a single persistent cloud. Although Orion had long since faded from view in the morning light, I had one last silent conversation.
By 6:35, four minutes before totality, for no reason whatsoever the thick clouds that had been obscuring the sun started to disperse. We began to glimpse the sun peaking through gaps in the clouds.
Although we hadn’t been able to purchase the special eclipse-viewing glasses, we were able to see the remaining sliver of sun through an equally effective and much more beautiful filtering system – thinning clouds. With the naked eye we were able to watch the solar crescent diminishing toward totality, which we would not have been able to do if the sky had been clear.
The heavens dimmed ominously. At 6:38, miraculously, the clouds let go of the sun, by now nothing more than a thin, smiling arc of light with a small bulge where sunlight passed through a valley on the underside of the moon. Then suddenly darkness struck, and a collective gasp sounded all along the beach as all solar light disappeared behind the dark perfect circle of the moon except the dancing halo of the sun’s corona and a soft glow low on the eastern horizon. I had never realized how beautiful and amazing darkness could be. During the two minutes of totality, most of us on the beach were speechless, with the exception of occasional exclamations of “Oh, my God!” and “Beautiful,” and the sweet sound of Lois’ soft crying.
Jerry had warned us not to look at pictures of totality. He said they don’t even come close to capturing the experience, yet they give the illusion that you have seen it. Lois and I had both run camera videos of totality, and Jerry was right. They did not capture it. In fact, they distorted it. I’m following his advice. You’ll find no photos of the total solar eclipse here.
When I think about our experience, I realize that there are several things we did not see. We didn’t see the wall of darkness rushing at 1000 mph from the west because our beach only had a view to the east. Nor did we see any sign of what Jerry called shadow-bands, dizzying bands of light and shadow that sometimes accompany solar eclipses. What we did experience, though, was a sort of sweet torture, followed by tremendous relief, heart-stopping exhilaration, and a giddy, breathtaking feeling of beauty and wonder. It was unforgettable. There is a total solar eclipse in Oregon in August 2017. We’ll be there.
The San Francisco Giants never won the World Series while Jerry was alive, but since 2010 when he departed for the stars, they’ve won it twice, after playing one cliff-hanging game after another in which they clawed their way back to victory in the final inning or two. One radio announcer characterized watching the Giants as torture. This past year the Giants won the championship again against tremendous odds after losing the first two games in a playoff series against the Reds and three of the first four games in the championship series against the Cardinals. When all hope seemed lost, some sort of spiritual intervention seemed to take place, and they would emerge victorious in glorious fashion. Watching them play was exhilarating, mesmerizing…and exhausting……like the solar eclipse in Australia, November 2012.