The moon’s a red balloon

As with all these mad cap ideas, when the alarm went off just three hours after going to bed I questioned my sanity. Experience tells me however that once over the initial shock of getting up in the middle of the night these crazy ideas are always worth it.

The combination of a ‘super moon’ and a total eclipse of the same, coupled with a forecast for a completely cloud free sky meant that it was just one of those things that we felt we shouldn’t miss. We wrapped up in unfamiliar winter clothing and crept out of the house, conscious that our neighbours are generally sane and would, most likely, be fast asleep in bed. It already felt like a mini adventure.

The moon was startlingly bright and it was immediately evident that we had only just got up in time. The shadow of the earth had already taken a small bite out of the brilliant white sphere, the show had already started. Surrounded as we were by street lights it wasn’t the best environment to appreciate a night time eclipse so our plan was to walk out of the village onto unlit lanes to get the full impact of the spectacle. As we walked along what I have always thought of as a relatively straight road the moon swung through nearly ninety degrees revealing the true change of direction we were taking. It made me think of the early navigators, traversing seas and deserts simply by observation of the planets. Travelling with hope and courage rather than GPS and backup mobile phone.

Orion was looking down on us, his sword and belt easy to identify but the still bright moon made the fainter stars of his bow harder to pick out. Similarly we could just make out Cassiopeia and The Plough. With ninety percent of the moon still beaming down our shadows on the road were sharp and distinct, the light easily sufficient to read by. The progress of the shadow was slow and we became aware of other elements of the night. The call of birds on the nearby creek, geese from the sound of them, and the smell of the damp earth as we took to a dirt track to get further from the light pollution. If we stood still it was possible to make out the occasional rustle of a creature in the hedgerow, perhaps a hedgehog or a rabbit.  As the moon’s light was slowly stolen by the shadow of the earth so the stars became brighter and easier to distinguish. Just a trace of the milky way could be seen and Venus, low on the horizon shone brightly, a real star shaped star, as if drawn from a child’s imagination.

The final brilliant ellipse was extinguished leaving us in a new kind of shadowless darkness. The moon was now a strange red circle framed by a brighter rim and we were mesmerised as we stood and stared until the pain in our necks grew too much to bear. Naively we imagined that the shadow would clear and the moon would reappear as quickly as it had been obscured but it didn’t. We had no idea that it would remain in it’s current state for an hour or more.

My pictures were nothing like this

My pictures were nothing like this

We waited and waited but reluctantly we gave in and began to wander back towards home, constantly checking over our shoulders for a sign of change but it never came. It was as if the show had been put on pause and we didn’t have the remote control to do anything about it.

We were cold by the time we got home and astonished to find that we had been wandering the darkening lanes for two hours. That’s longer than your average feature film and as it turned out a lot more entertaining than many. We took about twenty photographs of this rare phenomenon, every one of them was rubbish. But that’s OK. The photographs would probably have ended up languishing in some forgotten folder on Google Drive never to be seen again. Whereas the memories, the experience, they will last forever and what’s more they are high definition works of art. But you will have to take my word for that of course.

The not so beautiful eclipse of the sun

Well that’s it for another ten years at least. It’s all over. I have found myself just as wrapped up as anyone by all the frenzy surrounding this latest eclipse of the sun. The media have, predictably, gone crazy over it. School start times have been changed, TV schedules re-written, planes chartered and personalities have been wheeled out to bring us coverage of this extraordinary event.

Photo courtesy of ESA

Photo courtesy of European Space Agency

The adjectives used to describe the spectacle have been interesting. We have been drowning in words like spectacular, stunning, breath taking and one reporter described it as the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Really? I’m sorry but I don’t actually think it is that beautiful. Extraordinary yes, amazing maybe, even incredible but I don’t think it even comes close to dozens or even hundreds of sunsets I have seen for example. I have seen spectacular mountain vistas, stunning towering sea cliffs and even breath taking fields of red poppies swaying in a summer’s breeze which all provide a visual spectacle far more stimulating and rewarding than an eclipse of the sun. I think a lot of these commentators are missing the point.

Sunset over Jura

Sunset over Jura

I am not trying to belittle this phenomenon at all. I just think that it is special, not because of its beauty, but because of its rarity. The correct reason for making such a fuss about it is that it may be the only one some people will see in their entire life time. Now that is special. Depending upon where we are on the planet, weather conditions or restrictions imposed upon us by our circumstances some of us may never see an eclipse from birth to death. That’s what makes this event worth shouting about. That’s why we should celebrate it, because it is precious.

So if the true value of an eclipse of the sun lays in its very rare nature then surely that is true of other uncommon and unique experiences. But here’s a thought: You can’t simply choose to see an eclipse of the sun whenever you like, you have no control over such things, but you can enjoy equally rare and precious experiences almost at will.

Stunning sea cliffs

Stunning sea cliffs

Most of us already have a whole catalogue of these very special moments already stored away. The first time we fell in love, held a baby, climbed a mountain or rode a bike. There are thousands of other examples but the key word here is ‘first’. Ask yourself this question; when was the last time you did something for the first time? Think hard about that question because the answer may reveal that you are missing opportunities to collect the most precious things in the world. Truly unique experiences.

When you do something special, something wondrous, exciting or even frightening for the first time you experience something that you can never ever experience again. Its uniqueness lies in it being the first time. By its very nature the first time can never be repeated again and this makes all the emotions and sensations associated with a new experience precious beyond words.

You will have to wait a very long time to witness a solar eclipse again but you can create rare and special events pretty much whenever you like. From something as simple as cooking a meal that you have never tried before to travelling to a new place or taking on a real challenge that stretches and tests you, it’s easy to set these situations up. At the ripe old age of 55 I cycled through the night from Manchester to Blackpool. It was the first time I had ever cycled all night and into the dawn. It was a wonderful, unique and special experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Yesterday I spoke to someone who is learning to play the piano in their sixties. They can look forward to a whole host of first time experiences to savour and cherish. So don’t wait for the next eclipse to come around. It may be cloudy, you may be in the wrong part of the world or sadly, you may be dead. Make your own eclipses now. Make them for the very first time, make them beautiful and make them often.