…AND THAT CHANGED MY LIFE


On an early March afternoon this past year, I was on my hands and knees building a large sundial at Rowe Sanctuary in central Nebraska, where people stand on the date and their shadow tells the time.  From the second week in March through the second week in April, Rowe is busy as visitors arrive from all states and a few dozen countries to witness the Lesser Sandhill Crane migration, one of the three greatest natural sights I’ve seen  and one of Jane Goodall’s top ten.  I was working pre-season and decided a nature center like Rowe needed a sundial.

I was using markers, T-squares, a calculator and duct tape when a good looking young man stopped by.  He was friendly,  and I knew him as the Great Plains photographer Michael Forsberg.  Mike was interested in what I was doing with trigonometry and ellipses and then asked if I could find him information for the full Moon azimuth as it rose. He wanted to know exactly where in the eastern sky he would see it rise.

Fulfilling a request from Mike Forsberg suddenly became my top priority, so that evening I sent him the information.  He later e-mailed me pictures he had taken out in the viewing blinds, including an incredible shot of 4 different species of geese flying together.  Imagine, the premier wildlife photographer in the American midwest e-mailing me pictures he took!  Later that week, when I saw Mike again, I had him sign one of his books for me.  I just happened to be making a sundial when he walked by.  He just happened to stop.  And that changed my life. I just didn’t know it at the time.

When I left Nebraska in early March, I felt I had unfinished business.  I had not been there when the migration was in full swing, nor had I led tours to the viewing blinds, which had been a goal–a dream–of mine.  Four weeks later, I flew back to Nebraska, to volunteer at the height of the crane season, when 600,000 birds are on a short stretch of the Platte River, flying in at night to the safety of the braided channels and flying out to the fields in the morning to eat waste corn.  That week, I worked 17 hour days, sleeping on the floor in the visitor center, because local housing was full, listening to the cranes call on the nearby Platte.  The first night I shared a floor with– Mike Forsberg– who now knew me.  We didn’t talk much but I soon learned Mike is modest as he is good.  He deeply respects Rowe volunteers, because we help make some of his photography possible.  His nature photography is the best I’ve ever seen.

I finished my training and became a lead guide, meaning I could take visitors to the viewing blinds.  I got to talk about Lesser Sandhill Cranes; I watched people smile and heard them cry when they saw the cranes land, “dance,” and call before them.  Sandhills are large and loud, their voice primitive and deeply primal, echoing across 3 million years of time.  My enthusiasm outweighed my shyness, and I thoroughly enjoyed guiding.  We volunteers were a cohesive group, all of us working together to do whatever needed to be done, even if it wasn’t our “job.”  That week, I felt alive in a way I seldom have experienced.  So often, I told visitors, “I work 17 hour days, make coffee at 5 a.m., clean toilets, sweep the walk, give “Crane 101 talks,” do odd jobs, get dinner, sleep on the floor and see the cranes morning and night.  Am I lucky or what?”  When I called home, my wife commented my voice sounded different.

Mike stayed in the visitor center a second night:  two Mikes, two nights, too cool, two of his books I bought.  Mike signed the second one, too, adding a stunning phrase, calling me “a man of great spirit,” for he had quickly recognized something in me that I had not fully appreciated:  I have a deep spiritual connection to nature, the outdoors and wilderness. Mike is a man of faith and told me he felt closest to God when he was in the photography blinds, where people are taken in late afternoon and cannot leave for any reason until mid-morning the following day.  He said the experience was beyond comparison.  I’m going to do it next spring.  It has become one of my dreams, and while I, a scientist and a statistician, consider myself a practical person, not far below the surface lies a deeply spiritual, emotional dreamer.  Somehow, Mike knew that and how to help me understand myself better.

Last July, after the eclipse in El Calafate, Argentina, I sent Mike a picture.  I was a bit embarrassed to be sending a handheld shot to a famous photographer.  Mike, however, immediately replied “very, very cool,” saying I must be the only guy in the world who was going to Patagonia in July and to northern Alaska in August.  I wrote him after I returned from the Brooks Range, 118 degrees north of where I was in South America, telling him I would be ordering one of his pictures as a gift.  I am becoming friends with a special man, because we share a spiritual bond with the outdoors, especially Sandhill Cranes.  If he hadn’t stopped when I was making the sundial, this never would have happened, and my perception of myself and indeed my life wouldn’t have changed.

*                                *                                 *

July 9 is a holiday in Argentina, independence day.  I was in Buenos Aires, appropriately staying on Avenida 9 Julio, the largest street in the world.  That day reminded me of Christmas, for it was a winter holiday at a similar latitude south of the equator as I live north.

I went to a restaurant as part of a tour, going up a narrow set of stairs to a table with other people on the tour.  One of the guides asked me to sit in the middle of the table next to a young German woman.  And that changed my life and hers, especially hers. She and I will never be quite the same again.

The woman, Maria, was a young German scientist on her first trip out of Europe.  She, like me, was in Argentina for the solar eclipse.  Both of us had expected to take a plane to fly over the clouds to see the eclipse, but the flight had been cancelled.  My trip down to Buenos Aires involved barely making a connection; had I missed it, I might have gone home, since the probability of seeing an eclipse in Patagonia in winter is poor.  What kept me going was the idea if I didn’t go, and people saw the eclipse from the ground, I would never forgive myself. I didn’t know at the time the details of Maria’s trip, but it seemed clear we would be “clouded out.”  I later learned she had been at a conference in California, had a car accident on a freeway, and brought no winter clothes with her, since she was also planning to see the eclipse from the air.  To say we were both depressed and having an awful trip was an understatement.

Maria was completely fluent in English.  I asked her what she did, learning of her work in preparing an X-Ray satellite for launch to the LaGrangian point furthest from the Sun.  Fortunately, I knew something about LaGrangian points, where the Earth and Sun’s gravitational pulls are equal, leading to stable orbits for bodies located there.  Because I had studied physics, I was able to ask intelligent questions, soon learning about the LaGrangian point 1.5 million km beyond the Earth where the satellite was going.  Because I knew about conics, the concept of parabolic and hyperbolic mirrors was understandable, and the major and minor axis of the elliptical orbit clear to me.  I listened to Maria for a good 30 minutes.  When she asked me what I did, there wasn’t much to say except I chased eclipses, taught math as a substitute, once practiced neurology, liked cats and was a vegetarian.  She taught math, liked cats and was also a vegetarian.  Naturally, she was most interested about my eclipse experiences.

On the afternoon tour of the city, we spent some time together, Maria convinced she wouldn’t see the eclipse.  This being my 20th eclipse trip, I told her many times:  “Maria, it isn’t over until it is over and we didn’t see it.”  Indeed, a year earlier, in China, a small window opened up through thick clouds right at totality.  We went absolutely nuts.  It was the only eclipse I ever saw while I held an umbrella.

I didn’t see Maria again until the next afternoon in Patagonia, when she was an invited speaker at an eclipse conference.  I asked a question, later going up and telling her she gave a good talk.  She looked like she needed to hear that.  That night, at the hotel, I invited myself to Maria’s table of 4, since I was otherwise going to eat alone.  I was the de facto trip weatherman; I was following several South American weather models, knew the barometer was rising, the streaming moisture into the “cone” of the continent was cutting off, and high pressure was building over the eastern South Pacific.  Maria wanted to know my forecast; I was cautiously more optimistic, telling her to ask me about the barometric pressure the next morning.

That night, the barometer rocketed upward, the sky cleared, and we awoke to a beautiful sight:  the southern hemisphere stars were visible.  Maria had never seen the southern sky before.  I didn’t sit on the bus with her but with Anita, a senior colleague.  When Anita pointed out the Southern Cross on the bus ride to Perito Moreno glacier, I did something quite uncharacteristic for me:  I went to the front of the bus and asked how many wanted to see the Magellanic Clouds under a dark sky.  A lot of sleepy faces raised hands.  Nobody objected.  We stopped for 5 minutes so everybody, including Maria, could view our companion galaxies.

That afternoon, I worried about clouds interfering with the eclipse, but Anita fortunately kept Maria far from me.  When totality was imminent, Maria and Anita joined me, and Maria cried as the Moon completely covered the Sun.  I shouted, as did others, and I stared in awe of the shadow cone of the Moon, which I had never seen so clearly.  But my greatest memory is hearing Maria cry.  It was one of the most moving experiences of my life, and I’ve seen totality 12 times.

The next morning, I said goodby to Maria, and I haven’t seen her since.

But unlike every other eclipse trip I’ve been on, we’ve corresponded.  First it was by Facebook then e-mail and frequent Skype chats.  That has never happened before.  Maria told me that she almost had a panic attack in the restaurant, and my listening to her calmed her down.  Just my listening.  She got so excited from the eclipse that she has cast off shackles that led her from living a full life.  My wife and I invited both Maria and Anita to the May 2012 annular eclipse in northern Arizona, so they can see the Grand Canyon and the eclipse.  Maria will cry at both. I know she will.   Recently, she went skydiving for the first time.  She is learning C++ programming so she can become indispensable on the Australia eclipse in 2012 and get a free trip there.  Maria has been the best correspondent I’ve encountered in my life and we’ve become good friends.  Because of her, I’m learning German, and I plan to visit her next year.  Maybe every year.  And that has changed my life.

Had we not had such bad starts to our trips…Had we not been seated next to each other in Buenos Aires…Had I not known something about LaGrangian points and infrared radiation…Had I not been an amateur meteorologist and in demand…Had I not stopped the bus so people could see the Magellanic Clouds…Had we not seen the eclipse, none of this would have happened. Maria would still be wanting to see her first eclipse, and I would  not be learning the four German cases.  In August, when I returned from northern Alaska, I had a four hour layover from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. in Anchorage.  Had I not met Maria, I would have been bored, tired and cranky.  Instead, I chatted with her on Skype, passing the time quickly.

The older I get, the more unpredictable my life has become.  If I hadn’t been making a sundial, if Mike Forsberg hadn’t stopped by, if I hadn’t been seated where I was, and if I hadn’t known about LaGrangian points....

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One Response to “…AND THAT CHANGED MY LIFE”

  1. Neide Says:

    Wooow, great story!

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