In an open field in the middle of the afternoon in the bright sun, I looked around to see family groups, students, construction workers taking a break and cars pulled over to the side of the road — they were all doing the same thing and they were all smiling. Well, they were smiling beneath their funny-looking glasses. Everyone had come at this moment from different places in their day, but here we were all looking at and experiencing the same thing. While this is a column about coastal topics, I am going to stretch this one a bit to focus on the power of natural phenomena to unite people through a sense of common place in something that is bigger and more powerful than all of us.

Watching the eclipse this week was one of those unexpectedly unifying events. People all over the country were doing the same thing and sending each other celebratory pictures — all of something happening in nature rather than something in entertainment or conflict. And it was a positive thing. If only we could have the power to create this kind of central focus and purpose without having to wait for something like the next eclipse (by which time my now-teenage children will be 33), the world would be a better place.

Not only did this event bring people together through shared experience, but it made us all a little bit silly. Wearing funny glasses was a start, but it was also irresistible to play with shadows, watching them sharpen as the light faded and to make innumerable tiny crescent shapes appear on a friend’s shirt just by crisscrossing your fingers. The complexity of what was happening resulted in a simplicity of giddy joy that is not easily achieved, particularly in the adult world.

I was not only compelled to write about the eclipse after watching the many other people watching it but also after listening to a Brunswick School Department choir concert later that evening that included the song “We are One” by Marijohn Wilkinson. This struck me in a particular way following the unusual feeling of similarity across many types of people in many places I had felt just hours before. Here were students grades 5-12 all singing a song together — quite a powerful thing.

To draw this topic back to the coast, the eclipse coincided with some enormous tides following the full moon. While big tides are amazing to see, in recent months, they have resulted in some frayed nerves given the impacts that storms along with big tides have had along the coast. January’s double storms were and will remain unforgettable in Maine’s coastal communities. As we head into spring, the damage is still being discovered and assessed in an effort to prepare for the peak fishing and recreational seasons on the water. While these storms were in no way the gleeful positive experience that the eclipse was, they too were an unexpectedly unifying natural event.

When January’s storms hit, even if you didn’t live on the coast, you didn’t have to look very far to see or feel their impacts or find someone you knew closely who was directly affected. There was a sense of communal “we are in this together”-ness that brought out many incredibly generous responses. Individual people pitched in on the ground to haul out pieces of lumber that had broken free of wharves and community groups, and businesses hosted fundraisers to help with cleanup and recovery efforts. In my work with Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, I was astounded by the number of requests each day that I received from people wanting to know what they could do to help.

As we head into spring, I am grateful for the power of nature to bring people together and to often put us in our place by helping us to see how similar our situations might be, even if that isn’t readily apparent. When the sky goes dark at the same moment, we all can’t help but notice the same thing together.

Susan Olcott is the director of operations at Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

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