While doing fieldwork, I am out in the woods nearly every sunny and decent weather day and most of the year I make an intentional effort to avoid direct exposure to the sun. With my job, when most of your time is spent looking upwards at trees you learn early on, that getting your eyes unexpectedly splashed with sunlight can be quite painful and could eventually cause serious vision problems if great care isn’t always taken to avoid looking at the sun.
During the 2017 solar eclipse millions of people both inside the track of the total eclipse and those living in the shadow of the partially obscured sun were standing in fields, parking lots and almost any available open space, putting on extremely dark glasses and staring at the sun, or lack of it.
The eclipse took place on a hot, sunny Monday while I was working on a woodlot in Roane County, West Virginia. I knew the approximate period of time when the eclipse was going to occur but I did not know what to expect when 90% of the suns’ light was going to be blocked by the moon and planned for a late lunch during the peak shadow.
The canopy of the forest on most the property I was working in the day of the eclipse was very dense with expanses of over 100 feet between patches of land where only bits of filtered sunlight were able to reach the forest floor.
The first time I noticed the light intensity was starting to change was when I walked into a small opening and looked up to see that the cloudless sky was an off-color blue. My first thought was that the color of the sky was similar to what I had seen years before when the approaching smoke from a distant forest fire was being backlit by the midday sun.
A short while later, while walking through the woods, I looked back to a spot I had been working and couldn’t see the blue paint I thought I had just sprayed on a tree. Thinking I had somehow missed painting the tree, I was not able to see the paint stripe until I was within 25 feet of the tree. Upon realizing that the lighting in the woods was getting too bad to ignore any longer, I decided to find a comfortable location for lunch and wait for the moons’ shadow to pass.
As I sat in the quiet eating my lunch, the woods continued to get darker and for the first time I realized how much of the ambient light in the deep woods on a sunny summer day comes from sunshine reflecting from the waxy surfaces of leaves. As the eclipse grew in intensity and the trees leaves had less sunlight to reflect, the woods became dark and the scattered patches of sunlight reaching the forest floor became far more noticeable as they took on a slightly pale color, similar to what I would have expected during a full moon midnight.
During the height of the eclipse, instead of seeing the vegetation in the forest understory that surrounded me, the space between the shafts of light hitting the ground became dark and nearly black and for a short time the deep woods lighting took on a bright “night time” intensity.
During most of the eclipse, the air was calm and I had read that during our partial eclipse the temperature was going to drop a few degrees. What I noticed missing most for about an hour was the “push you to the ground” intensity the midday summer sun normally has on a clear day when the temperature is in the high 80s and dew point is in the mid70s. It was the first time in years I could imagine it would have been pleasant to be in the middle of a hayfield at that time of day.
Because the humid air was stifling and the eclipse was taking place during midday when forest birds are normally less active, I didn’t expect to hear or see many birds during the hour I spent living out the eclipse and there was a period of nearly half an hour during the peak of the event when the only thing I heard was the buzzing of insects. About fifteen minutes after the sky started to brighten and return to normal, the clucking of a pair of nuthatches hunting for food finally ended an extended period of hearing only bees, flies and cicadas.
After the nuthatches left, I took one more long drink of water and decided using the eclipse as my excuse for not working was no longer valid and I went back to measuring trees.