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Basking in the Afterglow

The Eclipse Soundscapes Team's muses on a moment of totality.

We woke up to thunder the day of the eclipse, and loaded our equipment in the interludes when skull pounding downpours leavened to sheets of drizzle. Our significant others and friends and family along for the journey watched weather radars on their phones, and tried to mop up our damp spirits with optimistic reports, though all forecasts contained clouds. Still, we geared up and drove an hour and a half south toward totality.

Our destination was the Lower Hamburg Conservation area, a sliver of wildlife refuge tucked between the Missouri River and a vast cornfield owned by the Beans, a family of former popcorn farmers. From the levee that formed the border between the public and private lands, it was nothing but corn and sky as far as the eye could see, punctuated by a weatherbeaten barn and silo that had been left dilapidated by flooding in 2009.

We´d stumbled on the property by luck, driving through the heartland for hours with the Eclipse Soundscapes app open to assess the eclipse percentage and duration in various cornfields. We also had to test our cell service, to ensure we could deliver a Facebook Live broadcast we'd promised our headquarters at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. On the levee between John Bean´s cornfield and the Lower Hamburg Recreation Area, signal was strong, the eclipse percentage was 100%, and we would experience over a minute of totality. Or rather, we would if the clouds ever cleared.

The clouds had little interest in the eclipse. They were unwilling to reroute their commute, and as high as we set our hopes, they couldn't reach the cloud cover enough to break it. We donned eclipse glasses and looked into the spot where the sun should have been. The dark abyss only stared back.

It wasn't the first time the project met a hurdle. In the few short months since Eclipse Soundscapes´conception, we'd jumped hurdles, pivoted to avoid barriers, re-pivoted away from corners, and often, stood obstinately in the way until walls moved for us. When Apple denied our app from the App Store, just three weeks before the eclipse, we hung our heads only long enough to put our noses to the grindstone. We crafted appeals, coded new features, and re-submitted three times before the reviewers relented. With the immovable deadline of celestial trajectories always looming, we spent late nights and weekends alone working, yet we always worked together.

So Monday in that cornfield, we refused to take on the dark mood of the sky. Instead, we opened up the Eclipse Soundscapes app to use it exactly as it was intended: an experience for people who cannot see the eclipse. We would hear the audio narration while the eclipse unfurled behind a private curtain of cloud, and we would listen and feel the world change around us. If we had learned anything from the people with visually impairments who we had worked with throughout the course of this project, it was that the universe does favors for no one, and you work with the tools you've got, and the positivity of your experience in this world directly correlates to your attitude.

Then, several minutes before the eclipse, the clouds began to part. Or rather, they seemed to retreat towards the horizon, the center of the sky becoming lighter and lighter even as ground grew dark in the shadow of the moon. "This is the full eclipse, when the moon´s black disk completely covers the sun..." began NCAM´s Brian Gould, the voice of the Eclipse Soundscapes app. And there in the sky, we saw it all.

For several moments, the moon was indistinguishable as a sphere. From behind protective lenses, it was only the tongue of a vast dark swath, lapping away the last orange wisps of the sun. A swarm of swallows flitted by and into the trees lining the river. A dark layer of twilight followed them, and for a fraction of a second, the sun went out entirely.

Then, it re-emerged as a spectral ring. John Bean´s cornfields went dark except for a violet sunset bleeding in reverse from every horizon. The wind ceased rustling the dry stalks. The ring in the sky glowed for an abbreviated minute before a hot pink string of Baily´s Beads pushed out from the righthand curvature. And just as the light hit our eyes, a diamond emerged from the top of the sun, it´s gleam refracting in the clouds and raining down in a brilliant shimmer.

As the shadows lifted from the Earth, a flock of pelicans rose from the riverbanks in arrow formation and coasted in a wide circle before disappearing from sight. From the far side of the river, an owl whistled a few confused notes. People began stringing words together in arrangements more closely resembling sentences.

In about 63 seconds, we had witnessed all the phenomena we had spent months educating others about. But we'd also come to understand the incomparable awe which keeps otherwise sane people travelling the world in search of the next eclipse.

Even after a champagne celebration, our Principal Investigator Dr. Winter woke up at 4 am like a kid on Christmas, and checked the downloads of the Eclipse Soundscapes app. At 57,477 downloads, we had smashed our target. And as we basked in the afterglow of totality, the emails rolled in.

"I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to have been able to share in this experience," one user wrote. "Being visually challenged, this app was beyond my imagination."

"Like everyone else there, I was counting down to totality, and when it happened, everyone, myself included, was blown away," wrote another.

"The caring, intelligence, and creativity that went into this innovation are immensely impressive, and the sheer joy and excitement it gave me are beyond words," read another email. "Thank you, thank you for making this possible."

These emails fill us with more joy than our fans will ever know, and all we can say is no, thank you.

When we asked people to listen to the soundscapes of the eclipse with our app and with their own ears and audio equipment, we were encouraging a form of mindfulness. There is a meditative quality that comes with active listening and experiencing the world through sound. The ego quiets, the senses heighten, the present moment shines through, and all that is left…

is gratitude.