Solar Eclipse Offered Unique Opportunity to Experience Nature in New Ways

Pen and ink drawing of two wolves howling at an eclipse.

During the solar eclipse in April, Katie Corbett traveled to Indiana on a mission: to listen to the wolves.

While visiting a wolf sanctuary last year, Katie learned that during a solar eclipse, wolves will begin to howl at the shadow of the moon as it obscures the sun. It also just so happened that the sanctuary was right in the path of totality in last month’s eclipse.

Katie, who lives with vision loss, decided that she wanted to experience the phenomenon in person. So with a friend, she travelled east from Wisconsin to the sanctuary.

“The first thing I noticed was that over the course of a few hours, it got much colder,” Katie says. “It dropped about ten degrees. The birds got quiet, and my friend told me that the dandelions that were open under the sun began to close as it got dark. And then the wolves started howling.”

Listen to Katie’s recording of the wolves:

Audio courtesy Katie Corbett

One by one, about 30 wolves began to howl at the eclipse. An astronomy buff, Katie was excited to be able to experience the eclipse herself. While many folks think of a solar eclipse as a mainly visual event, Katie’s experience demonstrates that people with vision loss can appreciate a much wider range of activities, including those in nature, than most people realize.

“To go to the path of totality and experience the solar eclipse, even if I had been by myself, in the middle of the woods or a city or anywhere, I would have been able to sense what was happening,” Katie says.

While sitting with wolves might be one of the coolest ways to experience a solar eclipse, it isn’t the only way someone with vision loss could experience this largely visual phenomenon.

Denise Jess, Executive Director of the Council, used the Eclipse Soundscapes app on her phone to follow the eclipse. The app uses an interactive “rumble map” to tell users where the eclipse is through touch and sound.

As the moon passes between Earth and the sun, the pitch of the soundscape and the intensity of the vibrations change. The app also includes detailed audio descriptions of eclipses to give users a better understanding of what a solar eclipse is and why it’s happening.

“I love that the app is designed for people across the vision loss spectrum,” Denise says. “People with full vision can find it interesting and useful because the photography is really good. For those with low vision, it has accessible features like large font and high contrast. And if you have no vision, it was still accessible through a screen reader.”

Another, even more high-tech, way of experiencing the eclipse is through a device called LightSound. Developed in part by the University of Texas-San Antonio and Harvard University, LightSound is a box that converts light intensity into sound. As the moon moves over the sun, the tone created by the box becomes deeper and deeper.

Almost every outdoor activity you can think of can be enjoyed by people with vision loss with the appropriate adaptations. Birding, for example, is usually thought of as a visual only experience. “Experienced birders who are sighted know that they have to rely a lot on their ears,” Denise says. “I think a lot of people believe that birding is a visual experience, but master birders know that that isn’t true.”

The Council teams up with the Southern Wisconsin Bird Alliance each year (and for the first time this year, Aldo Leopold Nature Center as well) to offer a Birding by Ear event to help teach people, whether they have vision loss or not, how to find and identify birds by sound instead of sight.

As the eclipse and Birding by Ear show, vision loss need not limit one’s enjoyment of the outdoors. Not only can people losing their sight continue pursuing their hobbies, but research shows that spending time in nature has bountiful cognitive benefits. The American Psychological Association has found that being in nature can help improve your working memory, boost your mood and strengthen your brain.

“If you’re looking at something like a solar eclipse and thinking ‘well I won’t see it so I can’t experience it,’ try thinking about what you experience with your other senses and try to make it more of a full body experience,” Katie says. “Remember that these are shared experiences that you can have with others, and that you can all enrich each other’s experiences. Don’t limit yourself.”

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