There was a wonderful lunar eclipse on Sunday, January 20, 2019. Visible in its entirety from everywhere in North and South America as well as partially from parts of western Europe and Africa, this celestial event was given the somewhat ungainly name of “Super Wolf Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse”. Well, at least that was what we Americans called it. Reflected in that appellation was the fact that it the was closest to the earth in its annual revolution (the “Super Moon” part), the full moon of January (the “Wolf Moon” part), and the reddish shade it turns during a total lunar eclipse (the “Blood Moon” part).
The cactus forest I chose to spend the eclipse event in.
I decided to make a pilgrimage down to Sonora, Mexico for the eclipse because it presented a unique opportunity to do two things: One is to catch this rare occurrence in a unique setting such as a cactus forest, and the other was to visit the desert wildflower bloom that was occurring as a result of heavy rains in October 2018. I was actually hoping to catch both of those occurrences together – mass bloom at night in a cactus forest under a blood moon – but it turns out that there were not as many wildflowers in the cactus patches as I had hoped. That’s not a great loss, actually, since there were plenty of wildflowers elsewhere, which will be featured in a separate post, and the cacti are majestic at any time and under any circumstance.
A juvenile cardon (Pachycereus pringlei) hugs his pet teddybear chollas (Cylindropuntia bigelovii).
When I was planning my trip in the few weeks prior to the eclipse, I had in mind two specific potential cactus groves in which to photograph the event. I had been to both places back in March and April 2017, when I made two separate trips with different groups to view the spring wildflowers that were also present that year. Which grove I would end up in depended partially upon what the status of the wildflower bloom was.
A young senita cactus (Lophocereus schottii) starts its life amidst giant cardons. The reddish new top growth is pigmentation the plant produces to help avoid cellular damage from sunburn and UV light, much like melanin protects human skin.
The same cactus grove where I photographed the January 2019 eclipse, shown here in March 2017.
In 2017 I had seen this particular grove of cardons on a five day long botanical tour with the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society, between March 17 and March 22. Scattered amidst the chollas and columnars were evening primroses, sand verbenas, dune sunflowers, globe mallows, and several other species. I was hoping for a repeat of this show under the blood moon almost two years later.
A lake of golden brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) flowers on the bajada slopes below the nearby hills, studded with cardons in March 2017.
In January 2019, there were significantly fewer wildflowers. Only a handful of dune evening primroses (Oenothera deltoidea) and sand verbena (Abronia villosa) were present.
Unfortunately, as it turned out the rains of October 2018 passed somewhat farther north of this location in central Sonora. While there were definitely some wildflowers here, the main locus of blooming attention was farther north and northwest in the Pinacate and El Gran Desierto Altar regions, as well as portions of southwestern Arizona. The show was still good in some places and the cacti were healthy and beautiful, but the farther south I went the less abundant the flowers became. So that was one reason why I stayed here, as opposed to going to the other grove of immense cardons I knew about, located approximately 80 miles farther down the highway.
Late afternoon sunlight plays across the giants.
I admit however that I didn’t fully know whether the dunes near Puerto Libertad were going to be dry or not on the evening of the eclipse, just suspecting that things might not be as good as I’d already witnessed to the northwest. I was thinking that I would stop at this isolated first grove, take sunset photos, leave at around 6 PM, and then drive the remaining 90 minutes or so after dark to the other site and set up before the eclipse began at about 8:30 PM.
A set of four small juvenile cardons clusters underneath an elder, who might for all we know be one of their parents.
A closer view of the cluster of four young cardons.
It’s not unheard of for several separate but closely-spaced seedlings to survive and grow tightly together for the rest of their lives and resemble one plant, but odds are good that the middle two individuals might eventually be crowded out of the family portrait. They are already smaller than the outside two, and will be physically squeezed and possibly outcompeted over time, which might result in their deaths. Time will tell.
Here’s a short video which includes a live view of the small grouping of four above.
Having made my choice to stay in this grove until at least sundown and then drive onwards to the next site I had in mind, I set about photography. I love being in a cactus forest. They are unlike any other plants on earth, and their inherently interesting beauty has made them instantly recognizable global icons. Columnar cacti are a cartoon staple as a stand-in for deserts in the same way that palm trees symbolize tropical islands, which remains true even in deserts where cacti do not exist and have never existed. (The cactus family is a New World one, and there are no wild native cacti found in Africa, Asia, Europe, or Australia. As if we even need to mention Antarctica…..) Whether these columnar giants are Arizona saguaros, Mexican cardons, South American trichocereus, or any other species, they all have a unique look that is not duplicated outside of the arid and semiarid regions of the Americas. It’s virtually impossible to take bad photos in a cactus forest, even if you try. 🙂
A four-stemmed cardon.
This cardon had four stems on it. It’s hard to tell by this more advanced stage of growth whether this was four tightly-spaced-but-separate seedlings that have knotted together, or whether they are actually four stems of a single individual erupting from a single common base. Usually cardon seedlings germinate as singles and what appear to be multiple-stemmed plants are often two or more seeds that just happened to sprout together. But just as in human births, it is possible for plants to spawn identical twins, triplets, and other multiples from a single embryonic seedling that divides at the cellular stage and then grows later. These could also have been an example of that. Without genetic testing to see whether each stem is identical to the others or not, it is impossible to tell for sure. (And it really doesn’t matter I suppose. It’s just fun to speculate.)
A slightly more zoomed-out view of the Cardon Quadruplets.
There is significant size variation between the stems, and they do look quite united at their common base, so perhaps they are actually identical quads? If so, the ground-branching growth habit is rather unusual for cardons; although basal stem sprouting is totally the norm for many other cactus species, including the senita (Lophocereus schottii) posted above, as well as the organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) to cite two examples.
Surprise! The Cardon Quadruplets are actually quintuplets!
As I walked around the back side of the four-stemmed cardon, I found yet another stem, the smallest of all, making the plant into a 5-stemmed, basally-branched organ-pipe-style cactus. Well that’s just special now, isn’t it?
The sprawling root system of a titanic cardon cactus.
Cardons are massive plants, and are on average the largest cactus species on earth. They are the tallest cacti known with a number of enormous individuals in Baja reaching nearly 70 feet tall. They are also the most massive cacti, with even fairly typical cardon individuals outweighing most saguaro cacti by 50%, or in many cases over 100% more. While saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea) are indeed the largest cactus species in America and are among the several largest species on earth, they are, on balance, somewhat smaller than cardons are.
I find the massive roots of cardons almost as impressive as the top growth.
Given their multi-ton adult weight, cardons develop truly astounding root structures to physically support themselves. This is a requirement in any soil, but it is particularly necessary in sandy soils, especially along the Baja and Sonoran coastlines where strong winds can occur at any time of year. But this region is occasionally hit by tropical hurricanes, which not only bring powerful sustained winds but also heavy rainfall that soaks the soil and can destabilize the top-heavy giants.
This root is easily 6 inches in diameter, and is still nearly that thick some 25 to 30 feet away from the trunk. It’s not inconceivable that cardons this large have roots that sprawl out 50 or more feet in all directions.
Fortunately cardons are up to the challenge of surviving such storms, and benefiting from the drenching rains they bring, in part because they invest more energy into the development of such major roots than saguaros do. As a result, cardons dominate on the sandy coastal plains and even on partially stabilized sand dunes, while saguaros are absent. Saguaros do grow on nearby rocky hillsides and commingle with cardons across most of Sonora, but they are nearly absent from sandier, looser soils, where they can topple over, despite being somewhat smaller and lighter than their hefty cousins. This general pattern holds true north of the border as well, where cardons are absent: Saguaros just don’t generally do as well on looser soils as they do on rocky bajadas and mountain slopes, which offer greater stability in monsoon thunderstorm microbursts and gusty winter frontal storms alike.
This cardon’s roots have been partially exposed by shifting windblown sands. Obviously those roots did not originally grow in open air and sun, so this is an indicator of how much wind erosion has occurred over the cactus’ lifespan.
On sandy substrates cardon roots are often partially exposed as the sands blow away with the winds. This fact is part of what enables us to view how far and wide those roots spread and how large they become. I am also in the saguaro transplanting business up in Arizona, and have had the opportunity to view the root structures of literally hundreds of saguaros (and several cardons and other large cacti and other succulents) and therefore have a generalized understanding of and basis for comparison between cardon roots and saguaro roots. And my considered verdict is that the roots of mature cardons are considerably larger and longer than that of saguaros of a similar age.
My friends Wenbo and John pose at the base of the cardon above, highlighting the massive size of both the plant and the extent of the root spread. This photo was taken in April 2017.
The same cardon as the two prior photos, showing most of the top of the plant plus the visible root structure closest to the trunk.
This depicted cardon, while larger than most saguaros, is actually not particularly exceptional for an adult of its species. It’s tallest stems rise to about about 30 feet (9 meters) and the plant has about 10 to 12 large branches and a number of smaller ones. It is likely to be at least 200 years of age, and maybe closer to 300. Meanwhile, saguaros seldom get this large and rarely live for much more than 150 years, with 200 being the generally accepted uppermost age limit for those. I show this photo to highlight how gargantuan this cactus species really is. And to know that there are documented individuals in Baja California that are twice this height and weight, topping out at 60-68 feet (18-21 meters) and 10 or more tons!
The sun declines towards the horizon.
All right, that little diversion into cactus physiology is a backdrop that helps inform readers as to why I purposely chose to drive over 600 miles away from home into Mexico to be present for the Super Wolf Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse rather than staying at home in my Arizona yard and nearby hills, which have plenty of saguaros. But I already have lunar eclipse photos in my local saguaros and hills, so I decided to visit the biggest cacti on earth for variance….
The sky lights up with orange and yellow as the sun touches the horizon over the waters of the Sea of Cortez.
A northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) perches atop a cardon, making its noisy “KLEER” call. These birds, a type of woodpecker, breed in both saguaros and cardons, excavating nest cavities into the stems.
As dusk rose and the colors faded, I started to make my way back to the vehicle, pausing to take some photos of the teddybear chollas and cardon silhouettes against the western sky.
A more pastel color palette graces the view to the south.
At this point, as the sun went down, I was still planning to finish up photography here and drive the remaining 90 minutes or so to Puerto Libertad and the other cactus forest, which had numerous wildflowers in March 2017 like this grove did. But I started coming across Sahara mustards (Brassica tournefortii) growing in the sand flats en route back to the car, and that sidelined me. Sahara mustard is a highly invasive plant from North Africa and the Middle East that has become a serious pest across millions of acres of Sonoran and Mojave Desert, and is spreading in the Chihuahuan Desert to the east as well. I’ve been battling this obnoxious weed for over 15 years across the deserts by pulling out spot populations that are trying to become established in otherwise uninvaded areas, and trying to stamp it out before it can spread so uncontrollably that nothing can be done about it anymore.
The moon rises behind a thin veil of clouds at a bit after 6 PM. Eclipse starting time was only about 2.5 hours away from now.
I’ll have to address my weeding efforts against this threatening plant in much greater detail in a different post. For now, suffice it to say that I got drawn into managing this developing situation and spent about 6 or so hours over the evening of the eclipse, the next morning, and the next evening in yanking out every one of the plants I could find. So rather than driving to Puerto Libertad, I made the decision to stay in this spot, pull Sahara mustards for a couple of hours via headlamp in the moonlight, and then shoot the eclipse.
The eclipse has started, and the white portion of the moon is not much more than a thin crescent. Even though the moon looks bright and full in the photo, in actuality if this had been an uneclipsed full moon, the time exposure would have been uselessly bright and washed out, and stars would not have been visible at all.
Having made my decision to stay at this spot instead, I spent about 2 hours pulling mustards by headlamp and making a major dent in their population. Again, more details on why this matters and is something that concerned people should do on still-manageable populations of this pestiferous weed in another post. Once the moon was evidently entering the earth’s shadow by about 8:45 PM, I quit and hauled my camera gear into the cactus forest again, this time with a tripod and other necessary equipment for nocturnal photography.
One of my first firespinning photos as the moon enters its red, fully eclipsed “blood moon” phase.
Some of that additional equipment was items needed for creating the following series of images. The technique is called steel wool spinning, or sometimes firespinning, even though it doesn’t actually involve open flames. (Well not unless you’re idiotic and start a fire under hazardous conditions.)
The moon is in its dim, red phase for this and the next several photos. All time exposures are 60 seconds long, but at a variety of ISO sensitivities. The cacti are lit briefly with my headlamp, and also to some lesser degree with the light from the steel wool sparks.
What you do with steel wool spinning is to take some ultra-fine grade steel wool, put it into a wire basket or metal mesh container of some sort on a cord or rope, ignite it with a 9-volt battery to start it “burning”, and then spin it around rapidly, throwing off sparks. The shower of sparks flying away from the concentric circles of the swinging steel wool will register on a time lapse photos as a fountain of orange streaks. Done correctly, it can be very beautiful.
A passing semi truck leaves a streak of light on the distant highway.
I took a number of photos of the steel wool spinning because I knew that this wasn’t going to be a readily duplicated opportunity, since lunar eclipses this nice are relatively rare, only once every 2 to 3 years. I decided to not do it on the photo above however since I saw that a truck was going to be passing through the scene, and that if I did the firespinning it would overwhelm the truck’s lights and make them nearly invisible. A bonus is the presence of an airplane crossing the sky. That, I didn’t plan at all. 😉
The lunar eclipse sails high overhead during totality at about 10 PM.
When the moon is in the totality phase of a blood eclipse, it is a very dim reddish tint. It’s still perfectly visible, mind you, but an entirely uncommon color, and so faint compared to a full white moon that if you weren’t paying attention and didn’t know an eclipse was happening, you wouldn’t necessarily even see it. Unlike during normal full moons, there are plenty of stars visible, including ones that are normally washed out by the brightness of our nearest neighbor’s reflectivity. Of course the visibility of stars and/or the Milky Way is short-lived, since as soon as the moon leaves earth’s shadow and starts to brighten again, the stars start to blanch out again.
For this shot I firespun at a distance behind the camera, trying to throw some sparks into the scene from a different angle.
One really nice thing about lunar eclipses as opposed to solar eclipses is how long they last, and how visible they are across most of the earth’s surface. With solar eclipses, a partial eclipse is actually also visible from much of the earth’s surface, but the small shadow representing the path of totality where the sun is not at all visible is extremely narrow, usually not more than about 70 miles wide. Compared to the thousands of miles of earth’s diameter, that is a tiny, fleeting strip.
I liked positioning the firespinning behind the cactus in many instances so as to not overwhelm the frame with too much bright light.
More importantly, solar eclipse totality phases are extremely short. This is because the moon’s shadow passes over any given area of totality for not much more than 90 seconds to at most about 3 minutes, so it is very, very brief. As soon as even the slightest hint of sun starts to reappear, the night turns back into daytime within 30 to 60 seconds. Granted, that light of a 98% eclipsed sun is strange and oddly dim and bluish, but it’s so bright that it almost instantly looks more or less like daytime again. There is very little time for photography at solar eclipse totality and virtually no time for creative experimentation. You are either prepared and know how to get the imagery you want, or you don’t, and you miss it because there’s no learning on the fly. There’s no time for that!
The flashing lights of a plane leaves a dotted line across the night sky under a dim red moon with the firespinning.
By contrast, lunar eclipses are much longer and easier to photograph. A huge proportion of that is because reflected moonlight, even at its brightest during full moons, is far dimmer than direct sunlight is. So you can play around with exposures, time lapse, different settings in the moon’s crescent eclipsed phases, etc and get a good sense of what is going to work for you. Plus lunar eclipse totality lasts about 45 minutes rather than only 2 or 3 minutes, and that’s plenty of time to work out some kinks in your process and experiment.
Let’s vary camera positioning a bit, just for fun.
On top of that, the fact that the moon enters the earth’s shadow and that it is visible from at least half the planet over the course of the 3 or so hours the process takes makes lunar eclipses much more democratically available for viewing. People on the East Coast of the USA saw the same blood moon as people on the West Coast did, plus so did everyone in between. Viewers in the Brazilian Amazon and Chilean Patagonia saw the same blood moon as people in wintry northern Canada and tropical southern Mexico. Obviously the precise times of the eclipse varied with the time zones, and of course visibility is deeply affected by local weather and clouds, but the point is that unlike the narrow strip of fast-moving solar eclipse totality, the several hours of visible-everywhere (weather permitting) lunar eclipse is an easy thing to witness. And photograph.
Trying some more sparky alternatives. The moon is leaving the totality phase, and a white crescent is visible along the right edge, as opposed to a faint red disk.
I’ll interject a few words on the process of steel wool spinning here. If you are interested in trying this for yourself, there are some precautions to take. There are numerous articles online that go into greater detail on how to do firespinning safely and successfully than I will here, so feel free to search some of those out.
There was no fire danger to my firespinning in this situation, because the desert vegetation was sparse, most of it was green, the largest cacti are fireproof succulents, and the soils were damp from recent rains. Had this been a drier time of year with greater fuel loads and easily-ignited dry grasses or leaves, I would not have even done this.
The single most important thing to bear in mind is that when you ignite steel wool with a 9-volt battery, that you have created an electrical short circuit that causes the finely-textured steel wool to oxidize rapidly, which we see as glowing sparks even without intensifying them by spinning them around in the air, which adds oxygen and increases the combustion rate. Steel wool that is ignited is very hot (1200 degrees F or more) and is entirely capable of starting blazes in an instant, which is why it is used to easily catch tinder on fire in a camping or survival situation. Never allow the batteries and steel wool to come into accidental contact with each-other in your pack, vehicle, or anywhere else. Store them separately, and wrap both in plastic bags or paper towels, because if you ignite steel wool by mistake you will surely start a fire and damage nearby items, or worse.
Therefore it is critical to use the utmost of caution and discretion when utilizing this photographic enhancement technique, with full understanding of how easy it potentially is to create a devastating wildfire if you are carelessly doing this in dry grasses or brush. Most people doing firespinning of this nature do it on inflammable, barren surfaces (rock, cement, asphalt, bare dirt, or sandy beaches) or in situations where the short-lived-but-still-very-hot sparks can’t catch anything on fire (on snowy surfaces, over water, in rain, in damp forests, or wet meadows). Use common sense and read up on safety protocols before you try firespinning, whether there’s an eclipse happening or not. 🙂
A halo appears around La Luna as high cirrus clouds move across the sky.
The moon was definitely well into the returning-to-normal phase by the time this last photo was taken. A halo of light was present around the moon thanks to the appearance of a veil of thin, high clouds overhead, which also meant excluding what few stars were still visible due to increasing brightness. That, plus increasing problems with the lens fogging up in the damp, chilly night near the ocean only a mile or two away, meant it was time to pack the camera and steel wool away. I was left with some very pleasing photography and great memories, and isn’t that what stuff like this is supposed to be about?