FROM THE FROUND UP: Nature’s pinhole camera

Photo of the August 21 eclipse, taken in South Carolina by the author’s son.
Photo of the August 21 eclipse, taken in South Carolina by the author’s son. PHOTO BY Lincoln Baxter, III

On Aug. 21, millions of people in the United States, including many of us here in the Delaware Valley, turned eyes skyward to watch our portion of the phenomenon of a total solar eclipse.

The next evening, a bunch of us from work got together with our families for ice cream. A lot of the conversation was about the eclipse and what we’d experienced. Much of it was of course similar since we were all about the same distance from the path of totality. But there were still differences.

I had done my best to witness the event; even left the dentist’s chair (who knew that I’d scheduled my appointment for exactly the time of the eclipse!) to run outside to catch a glimpse with my approved eclipse-watching glasses. What a disappointment! The clouds that had been light and feathery enough to let me see the first “bite” of the moon, were now dense and completely occluding the sun and moon event.

Elsewhere locally, from West Chester to Wilmington, my friends had better luck. They shared their stories to lots of head-nodding around the group: “Yeah, that’s what we saw, too.” It was fun to hear them comparing notes about the pin-hole viewers they’d made out of cereal or cracker boxes. And some of us had friends or family who had made the trip into that narrow band directly under the moon’s shadow and who, like my son, texted incredible photos as the event unfolded.

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One story, however, was completely different. “We were standing outside work, with our glasses on, looking up.” my friend Marie said. “And then this one woman gasped. ‘Look!” she said, pointing down, not up. There on the pavement next to us were all these crescent-shaped marks.”

It turns out that if you wanted to be able to safely observe the eclipse, you didn’t need special glasses, a box with a pinhole in it, or a specially set-up telescope. You just needed a tree! I had just read about this eclipse phenomenon a few days before: during an eclipse, spaces between overlapping leaves function like pinholes in a piece of cardboard and cast crescent-shaped images on the ground or pavement. I felt a little envious of Marie. The photos I’d seen online were beautiful and I wished I’d been able to see that myself. (Plenty of trees in my yard!) Plus now I felt like I’d missed out on seeing two eclipses!

In addition to the “wow” factor, the eclipse got me thinking about the big forces at work in the universe. Here on planet Earth, we usually see just the small cycles: light and dark, rain or not rain, the circle of the seasons. But there are far bigger forces in motion; planets and stars spinning at distances we can barely imagine. Some influences are obvious, like the sun, our own star which, at a distance of nearly 93 million miles still provides the power to run our weather; provides the energy that makes it possible for us to survive. Surprisingly, it only takes a few degrees difference in temperature, one way or the other, for us to feel too much sun or the lack of it.

The countless stars and moons, galaxies and planets beyond us are too far away to have any affect on us. Or are they? For me, the eclipse was a reminder that there are forces at work all around us that we may never know.

If you’re interested in the leafy eclipse images, there are a host of websites that have articles and photos posted. Here are a few.

Terrific photos:

https://petapixel.com/2012/05/21/crescent-shaped-projections-through-tree-leaves-during-the-solar-eclipse/

Good article:

http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/local/arts-culture/106513-see-the-solar-eclipse-using-natures-pinhole-camera-tree-leaves

Images created by using other viewing means:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/gallery/2017/aug/22/reflected-glory-solar-eclipse-shadows-in-pictures

Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to pamelacbaxter@gmail.com, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Join the conversation at “Chester County Roots,” a Facebook page for gardeners in the Delaware Valley. Go to Facebook, search for Chester County Roots, and “like” the page. To receive notice of updates, click or hover on “Liked” to set your preferences.