Eclipse chasers: A special order of Nature’s People

It matters little whether we regard the point of view
of the savage…or that of the astronomer,
the total solar eclipse is a most imposing natural phenomenon.

Mabel Loomis Todd
Total Eclipses of the Sun (1894)

If you and yours were some of the millions of Americans who traveled mucho miles to personally witness the celestially rare experience of a total solar eclipse last 21 August, you have something uniquely in common with Hog Island history.

And if you are an Audubon camper, you no doubt remember the part of the opening session narrative as retold from Millicent Bingham’s decades of addressing campers about her mother, Mabel Loomis Todd, who is still blessed there regularly as both primary ‘savior of Hog Island’ and the first editor of the Emily Dickinson canon of poetry and letters. Somewhere in that storytelling you might also remember mention of Millicent’s father, David Peck Todd, who is usually simply noted as chief astronomer at Amherst College a century ago and notorious for being, among other things, a global total solar eclipse chaser.

First off, let me just say how impressed I am with mathematicians who for millennia have accurately calculated solar eclipse events on the Earth. Though they couldn’t figure out exactly where they would show up until the 1850s, skywatchers from the time of the Babylonians recorded celestial events accurately enough to recognize the moon’s variable orbit plane that has everything to do with the timing and location of both solar and lunar eclipses. David Todd contributed to improvement in the plotting of such celestial dynamics only fifty years after it was first accomplished in Great Britain.

As a college student, David Todd cut his eclipse teeth by observations not of Earth, but of Jupiter. His meticulous observations and record keeping of eclipses of Jovian moons, and subsequent publication of that data, caught the attention of famed American astronomer Simon Newcomb who gave Todd his first job as a special assistant and ‘calculator’ at the Naval Observatory in Washington D.C. A few years later, Todd would take the astronomy job at Amherst where he and his new wife and little girl would make their home which proved fertile ground for the development of three very illustrious and successful careers.

Getting to totality, of course, is the first order of business before witnessing this unique and ‘most imposing natural phenomenon.’ My wife and I braved expected heavy interstate traffic through Ohio and Kentucky to get to Tennessee for our experience. We heard on the news that those 60,000 folks who joined us at Triple Creek Park in Gallatin, thirty miles north of Nashville, came from 39 states and 17 countries, including two busses of Japanese observers. During David Todd’s era of observations, one can only imagine the added degree of difficulty required to get not only expedition members to the precise path of totality, but also crates of sensitive optical equipment, often over miles of difficult terrain. All for a mere few quick minutes of totality.

As if expedition life wasn’t hard enough, often on the outskirts of civilization, there was never a promise of clear skies. Twice, in both 1887 and 1896, David and Mabel and observation teams sailed to Japan to record the sun’s corona using an innovative photographic camera system designed by Todd. It took eight months of difficult sailing and overland travel to record on wet photographic plates what solar science could only view at totality. And it was cloudy. Both times. So if you had clear skies like we did at Gallatin, you did a whole lot better than many of Todd’s dozen or so expedition teams. Such makes it easier to understand Millicent’s family anecdote that the only thing her father ever admitted to really upsetting him was clouds at totality. And if you know much about Todd family history, that really was saying something.

In part because catching totality under clear skies was inherently risky, David Todd assembled broadly based scientific teams to join his expeditions. The thinking was that even if all the money and effort spent on photographing the sun’s corona resulted in failure, other scientific natural history data, like flora and fauna study and collections, would result in the team bringing something of value home. Keep in mind, too, that the nation of Japan the Todds personally experienced was not yet fifty years removed from Commodore Perry’s abrupt appearance in 1854 to negotiate a trade treaty. Japan was a nation of mystery to Americans who were eager to learn more about the secretive and exotic Land of the Rising Sun. Which is another place in history where Mabel Loomis Todd fits right in.

Mabel Todd did not accompany David on all of his expeditions, but she didn’t miss many. Following both trips to Japan, she published articles in national publications with broad readerships, including The Atlantic Monthly and The Century Magazine. Whereas Dr. Todd and his team collected scientific data, Mabel focused on cultural issues in articles titled ‘An Ascent of Fuji the Peerless,’ ‘In Quest of a Shadow: An Astronomical Experience in Japan,’ and ‘In Aino-Land.’ American readers were hungry to hear more about the island nation most would never have the opportunity to travel to.
Mabel Todd produced a few full-length books from her global travels with her husband. Total Eclipses of the Sun (1894) had a mostly scientific bent but was aimed at explaining astronomical phenomena to laypeople while Tripoli the Mysterious (1912) focused on north African culture, another topic with broad interest among American readers at the time. A third book, though, Corona and Coronet (1898), offered a theme that resounded deeply in me as we awaited totality in Tennessee. Mrs. Todd wrote about the camaraderie that developed among the expedition team sailing on the Coronet on the long and difficult trek from New England to Japan. David even mentions that bonding by dedicating one of his own published works to the Coronet crew.

I surely don’t mean to imply the thousands of us who gathered at Triple Creek Park became best of friends like the Coronet crew did, but there was a palpable sense of community among us. I felt it, as did my wife, my brother, his wife, and the dozen or so strangers who found shade under the same tree we did. We had gathered to witness a once-in-a-lifetime event, and that elevated place we found ourselves was not lost on us. I did not hear one hostile word from anybody I saw all day. One family under our tree gave a tee shirt away to a guy who they only knew by first name who had gone to look for one, but found they were sold out. Another family offered surplus catered lunches they brought along to a younger family with kids just because the young ones looked hungry. I went over and tapped the younger dad on the shoulder and said, ‘Kind of like the loaves and the fishes, eh?’ He grinned and nodded while another woman who heard me looked up a bit startled and said, ‘I wonder if that’s how the miracle did work? People just brought out food to share when they knew their neighbors were hungry.’ How could I disagree? Maybe spectacular celestial events just bring out the best in us.

I’ve been a fan of Mabel and David Todd for years, even before I first heard their story about Hog Island. Being able to witness, first hand, that same spectacular yet elusive prize David spent a career trying to capture makes them feel even more like kin. It’s not just the aura of being on that special island in Muscongus Bay that they protected over a century ago, but now the etched-in-consciousness singular event of experiencing the sun and moon in their unique dance that produces the only time human beings can see the corona and planets together at midday. Now we have another commonality that assures our place in the fold of Nature’s People.


If you enjoy hearing stories about legendary Hog Island personalities, be on the lookout for my book, Nature’s People: The Hog Island story from Mabel Loomis Todd to Audubon. I’ve been at it for a while, and it’s a whole lot closer to publication, but there’s still fathoms to go. Look for an announcement at when it’s available.

Images:  Opening image of totality (Tom Schaefer, 21 August 2017, Gallatin TN) David and Mabel Todd (Todd-Bingham Family Papers at Yale University archive) ‘Amherst Station, Esachi, Japan 1896’  (Todd-Bingham Family Papers at Yale University archive) Note Mabel Loomis Todd standing in the doorway.

Tom Schaefer
Dayton, Ohio
August 2017

Can It Be July!

The summer solstice has come and gone, July 4, too,  and the days are getting shorter! But life at the Hog Island Audubon Camp remains upbeat, high energy, fun, and each new day a joy. Northern parulas, song sparrows, phoebes, our resident ospreys, Rachel and Steve, and other birds on the island are all busy raising young, with some fledging already. Life effervesces, as do the rocking FOHIs.

With four camp sessions under their belts, Birdwatcher’s Digest Reader Rendezvous, Joy of Birding, Arts & Birding/ Teens, and Field Ornithology/Teens, they are ready to take on the next part of the season. Registration at the camp is at its highest ever – 90% thanks to word of mouth and social media, notwithstanding Eva’s efforts and all the instructors to fill their sessions. FOHIs have likewise been spreading the word about volunteering and the sessions are full. But if you want to volunteer, sign-up for the wait list – things happen.

Thanks to Helen Walsh and Betsy Cadbury’s initial plantings of flowers and the continual watering and upkeep by the Old Bristol Garden Club, the gardens and window boxes are thriving. They were particularly appreciated during Arts week.

Other FOHI news

FOHI donated $10, 900 to the purchase of two new vans for the camp. It also gave full scholarships for a mother and daughter to attend Family Camp and for a local student to attend Field Ornithology/Teens. To make rooms brighter, new curtains were purchased for staff quarters and new linens and blankets for campers. We still have a wish list of a 16-foot skiff to replace the “scow, the workhorse boat; a gently used pickup truck; and a wood chipper for the island trails.


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On Wednesday, June 28, board members had a two-hour no-impact meeting at Hog Island, where they decided to hire a FOHI Volunteer Coordinator, move ahead with funding for the Hog Island Archive Project, and work on a 5-year strategic plan. They are energized, engaged, and looking to the future. A no-impact meeting means no work for anyone: sandwiches from Fernald’s Deli in Damariscotta and coffee from Dunkin Donuts.

Thanks must go to the FOHI “desperados” who fill in at a moment’s notice when a volunteer cannot make it. Then, there are the “whirlwinds,” who on Friday mornings completely clean rooms and make beds for the next session. FOHI volunteers are dedicated, hard-working, and passionate and a little crazy! But we love them.

The solar panels continue to provide electricity. To date they have produced 18,511.2 kwh and the camp has used 13,188.0 kwh, with June having the biggest consumption of energy. Nonetheless, the sun continues to shine and so far we have a net of 5,322 kwh in the grid. Thank you to all who made this possible.

The savings is equivalent to: Miles Not Driven – 30,391  miles; Gasoline Not Used – 1,436  gallons; Coal Not Burned – 13,710  pounds; Crude Oil Not Used – 30  barrels; Mature Trees Grown – 327  trees; Garbage Recycled – 10,086  pounds

There are still a few slots in  some of the sessions, so visit Hog Island to see what is available. Also check out the trip for teens to Costa Rica in December. See you on the island and thank you for all you do for Hog Island and Friends of Hog Island.

So Much is Happening

The best news is that even though camp registration is at 81% of capacity, it’s not too late to register. Likewise volunteer slots are going like hotcakes with four sessions already with waiting lists: Educator’s week, Joy of Birding, Raptor Rapture, and Migration I. If you’ve been thinking about being a camper or a volunteer, don’t procrastinate. Register or sign up now; otherwise you’ll be on the wait list.

Not only is the scenery breathtaking, the instructors outstanding, the staff friendly, the volunteers amazing, the air clean, but also the food is locally fresh and oh so tasty. Chef, Cleo, and assistant chef, Kristi, are coming back for 2017, as are the rest of the team, Eric, Adrian, Eva, and Juanita. We look forward to breaking bread with you.

Breaking FOHI news

Breaking FOHI news is the election of five new board members: Leigh Altadonna, Randy Blackburn, Tiffany Huenefeldt, ex officio, James Li, M.D., and David Sturdevant. We heartily welcome them and look forward to fresh ideas and bubbling enthusiasm.

Alas, six members rotated off the board, Terry Haight, Kenn Kaufman, Walt Pomeroy, Tom Schaefer, Loretta Victor, and Scott Weidensaul. They were part of the original board of FOHI and contributed greatly to its continuing success. We thank them greatly for their untiring contribution to the wellbeing of FOHI and the camp and for their unflagging confidence that FOHI could make promises and keep them.

FOHI’s  newsletter is out

As outlined in the newsletter, FOHIs achieved a lot in 2016 from opening to closing and in between. Their contributions varied from hammering, building, painting, renovating, plumbing, fixing boats, painting furniture, washing dishes, cleaning, to creating art on doors – the list is endless and surprising.

Their gifts to the kitchen, housekeeping, maintenance, gardens, and, more added the caring touch and made tasks easier. The culmination of gifts and sweat equity was the acquisition and installation of the solar arrays on the Fish House and Bridge, which is covered in the newsletter and in an earlier post.

FOHI volunteers are a prime example of renewable energy; they’re work reenergizes them! We welcome to the team the Old Bristol Garden Club whose many volunteers tended the gardens weekly.

Like the campers, FOHI volunteers  arrive eager to start the experience and leave with big smiles knowing they accomplished many things. Thank you. We couldn’t do it without you.

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Taking a Moment

Another year has come and gone and Hog Island still thrives.

We celebrated its 80th anniversary and completed a new solar system atop

the Fish House and Bridge.

Without you, none of this would have been possible.

We cannot thank you enough.

Enjoy the remaining holidays basking in the glow of these achievements.

Hog Island beckons  . . .

Hog Island Goes Solar

Bart and Virginia Cadbury had no way of knowing what their grandson, some 60 years later, would do for their beloved Hog Island. Benjamin Cadbury Wong, son of Peggy Cadbury and Ching Wong, knew he wanted to do something for Hog Island but what. Two years ago while volunteering at camp, he learned of our dream of being solar powered. He knew then how he could give and contribute to the wellbeing of the camp and planet.

Benjamin, a systems engineer with SunPower Corporation in California, put together a proposal and submitted it to his company. They donated at cost 92 solar panels and 72 micro inverters – the heart of the system. Dwayne Escola, systems design and engineer with Northeast Smart Energy LLC, donated his time and expertise. FOHI paid for shipping and materials. Eric Snyder, Hog Island Facilities Manager, was the linchpin in bringing the solar project to fruition. FOHI volunteers under the guidance of Benjamin, Dwayne, and Eric put it all together.

On September 24, 2016, the switch was turned on and the Hog Island Audubon Camp became solar powered. Two buildings – the Fish House and the Bridge – support solar panels that will provide 70-90% of the camp’s needs, including those of the mainland facility. Benjamin also provided a means whereby the daily energy production can be used as an educational online tool during camp and off-season. During the winter, energy produced will become electrical credits that can be used during the season. We expect the system to pay for itself within 2-3 years.

Twenty-nine FOHI volunteers excited at their part in the camp’s history donated  more than 1,000 hours – some came for a day just to be part of it. The roof team spent long hours in sun and drizzle – Ben, Dwayne, Eric, Adrian, Anthony, Pete, James, Phil; the rest of us were the ground team.

The Hog Island Audubon Camp’s solar system became reality through teamwork, passion, and love for Hog Island. Friendships were forged and mutual respect for every member of the team was the norm. With this kind of caring FOHI will continue to “make promises and keep them.” The camp has a bright future, indeed.

There is no doubt that the solar project is the star of FOHI’s closing week, but an update on some of the other projects will be posted later. Thank you all for your dedication and trust in the camp’s future.

Note: Bart Cadbury was Director of the Hog Island Camp, 1958-68.