GET OUT THE VOLE!

As the morning light filtered into the tunnel, the blind woodchuck moaned and sat up. Torn candy wrappers littered the dirt around her like fallen leaves, and the crunchy sound they made when she rolled over them gave the burrow a festive autumn feel. Something was poking her left haunch, and she batted at it until she realized it was a melted Snickers bar that was stuck in her fur. Barely able to reach over her swollen belly, she licked at the hairy chocolate lump until it completely dissolved in her mouth. What a delightful way to take a bath, she thought.

Getting up the day after a foggy Halloween was always difficult. She had found that bad visibility was a friend to the rodents who scavenged for a living, as it tripped up little trick-or-treaters who scattered their candy as they fell. She knew she should save some of her stash for the long winter ahead, but common sense did not always prevail when a mound of Mounds bars presented themselves to her. There was another pile of things she had collected from broken treat bags, and she sorted through the non-edibles in case she had missed something. She spit out a spider that appeared to have been petrified, wondering how old that thing was. There was a long skinny wooden stick with a rubbery end and a sharp point that could be useful as weapon, so she set that aside. There was also a piece of paper that had a lot of writing on it, but it was wet and smudged. The only part she could make out said, “GET OUT THE VOLE!” in large letters.

The woodchuck was alarmed. She had heard rumours of some kind of caravan of these mice that was coming from another field, and she worried that they were almost here. Although the woodchuck and the vole were both rodents, she felt no camaraderie with the smaller animals. She disliked it when they came to her field uninvited, even though she knew they were trying to escape predators. They were voracious consumers of her favorite nuts, and she often worried that there wouldn’t be enough daffodil bulbs left to help her double her weight for hibernation. It did not occur to her that the calories she had consumed last night would put her well past her goal.

There had also been chatter that the voles and the moles had been working together, which was an odd thing since they traditionally had little in common. The moles liked to hang out in gangs, so if in fact they were all coming to her field, the confrontation was going to be at West Side Story levels. She picked up the sharpened pencil and hummed a few bars of “Tonight.”

“Phil? Are you up?!” Her cousin’s head poked upside down inside the burrow. “Phil!”

“You know I hate to be called that,” she hissed. Her cousin scampered down the tunnel and looked disapprovingly at the piles of wrappers. “What a mess. Your mother would be heartbroken to see what a hoarder you’ve become.”

“I’m not a hoarder! This is all from last night. Shirley, did you see this flyer? The voles are coming! They’re the ones that carry the hantavirus. Or maybe it’s the plague? One of those diseases that’s really bad, I can’t remember! What are we going to do?!”

“First of all, Phil, you’re going to calm down. This stuff about the caravan is nonsense. It’s not herds of mice – it’s a group of our species who need some help. The weasels are attacking them and their food supplies are running low, yet you’re acting like they are invading our field.”

“But the fox said . .  .”

“Stop listening to that Ichabod Crane wannabe with the pumpkin head! You’re getting all worked up over nothing.”

“Look at this warning flyer I found.” The woodchuck thrust the paper with the smudgy words “GET OUT THE VOLE” at her cousin. “Read what they said!”

“Philomena, take off those stupid sunglasses. You’re in a dark burrow and you’re not blind anymore! It doesn’t say GET OUT THE VOLE, you idiot. Look at it again.”

The not-really-blind woodchuck removed her sunglasses and took a long look at the headline. In large black letters it said GET OUT THE VOTE!

“Oh. It’s not . . . vole.”

“Look, Phil, I know the eclipse messed you up, but you can see again and you have to start questioning things. Those glasses are like blinders. You simply can’t believe everything the Fox tells you. He does not have your best interests at heart; or any of us other animals, either. So let’s go do what the flyer says. Are you ready?

“Yes, I’m ready. Let’s go! Um, Shirley?

“What now, Phil?”

“You have a Snickers bar stuck to your butt.”

 

Unfortunately, woodchucks are not allowed to vote. But you are! Do it for all the marsupials who have no say at the ballot box.

Burn, Baby, Burn

catsin3D

Countless articles are warning that you will need special glasses if you plan on looking at the eclipse. Make sure you get the right kind —shameless grifters are apparently repurposing old 3D glasses and trying to pass them off as NASA approved, so be suspicious if yours have a Captain America logo on the side. I found a pair at a local hardware store for under two bucks and was surprised at how flimsy they are. For all the worry about blind woodchucks, I was expecting something a bit more substantial.

Some procedural questions for those of us who already wear glasses: do you duct tape the cardboard ones over your existing specs or shove them underneath? What if you have bifocals? Can I get these in my prescription? Are the disposables biodegradable or will they still be in landfills by the time we go through this again in 2024? Can I get the eclipse pair in those really thick, dark frames that all the hipsters are wearing?

Not peeking may be the safest option, but you can’t hear all the hype about this event and then elect to just stare at your shoes while it is happening. Looking at your feet should at least remind you to make the classic Pinhole Shoebox experiment. This diagram shows how to construct this project. It works exactly as described but should come with a warning— opinions may vary on its effectiveness.

Pinhole Shoebox

The last eclipse that was visible from the midwest area of the U.S. was in 1994. Chicago wasn’t anywhere near the path of totality so there wasn’t quite the amount of coverage there is now, but it was still in the news. I had been talking it up to my kids (who were nine and four at the time) and perhaps raising expectations for this great event in the sky just a tad more than I should have. Since I was all about Safety First and crafty as hell to boot, we constructed the Pinhole Shoebox as a family project. It was very low-tech but I assured them it was going to work perfectly. They seemed doubtful.

The afternoon of the eclipse found us out on the playground of the elementary school with kids milling about waiting for something momentous to happen. As the time approached, the light started to vaguely dim but it wasn’t as if total darkness fell. It just seemed cloudy. I had the shoebox positioned correctly to catch the light and as the moon moved in front of the sun, a perfect crescent shadow slowly advanced over the white circle that was the sun projected at the back of the box. It looked exactly as Carl Sagan had promised!

The problem with this whole experiment is that it happens inside of a shoebox and the image is about the size of a pencil eraser. You could call it anticlimactic. Others might use the words profoundly underwhelming.

Excitedly I called the kids over to show them that it had worked and they looked baffled. They had imagined something like the stream of light hitting the crystal staff and sending a laser beam through the darkness of the pyramid tomb in Raiders of the Lost Ark. What they got was their mother with her head in a shoebox acting like she had discovered something about the sun that Galileo might have missed. As I handed the box to my daughter so that she, too, could marvel at this astronomical event, I caught the look on her face. It was the dawning realization that this was to be the first of many moments when her up-to-that-point cool mom was actual going to turn out to be the embarrassment of her life. She’d heard about this in the girl’s bathroom but hadn’t expected it to happen this soon. And why was the waist of her jeans so high?!?

Shortly after this, she refused to be picked up from school in the battered old Chevy Chevette I was driving at the time. My advice is don’t try the shoebox experiment with anyone over the age of eight. You’re setting yourself up for humiliation. It’s going to happen eventually, but why add fuel to the fire? And for God’s sake, stop wearing those mom jeans.

Fun fact: Galileo was completely blind by the age of 74. Coincidence? I think not. 

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck stared directly into a solar eclipse?

woodchuck_eclipsebehind it

I think the answer is obvious. The first rule about watching the solar eclipse is don’t watch the solar eclipse. Foolish woodchucks who don’t wear their special glasses during this event will find themselves scorned and mocked by the other rodents. They can be very mean.

I hope the rest of the woodchucks have already ordered their glasses from NASA, because on August 21, 2017, North America will be able to experience its first solar eclipse in almost a century. For a total of 2 minutes and 41 seconds, the moon will move in front of the sun, blocking the light and warmth of the star we depend upon for our very survival. It’s a preview of what life will be like if Donald Trump stays in office much longer.

A total eclipse is said to be an awe-inspiring moment.  The light dims and goes flat, the temperature suddenly chills, birds and animals go silent (except for my cats, who will assume it’s time to eat since it will be dark). Woodchucks will make bad choices.

Most of the U.S. will be able to see at least a partial eclipse (or as Congress calls it, “a skinny eclipse”), but to get the whole experience of Black is the New Orange, you will need to be in the Path of Totality. The Path is not some flower-laden trail of dirt that little girls skip along; it is a wide arc of the sightline that swoops across the country, suddenly throwing tiny little midwestern towns into the spotlight simply because of where they are geographically located.

One of these towns is Hopkinsville, KY, population 31,000. That’s for today. On August 21, it is expected to be more like 150,000; or rather, 150,011, as my entire family and I will be there, too.

The Blind Woodchuck, besides being a cautionary tale, is also your guide to All Things Eclipse. Check back frequently for a first person narrative of how to prepare for this great event, and moment to moment observations about whether thousands of people standing together in a field staring up at the sun will simultaneously burn their retinas to a crisp. We can all learn from the woodchuck.