The Nature Conservancy’s Mantle Rock Nature Preserve, located in Livingston County, Kentucky, is exceptional in many ways – ecology, geology, history, and now… astronomy. On August 21, 2017, our preserve was within the path of totality of a total solar eclipse, the first to pass from coast to coast within the United States in 99 years.
Not only was Mantle Rock within the path of totality, it was near the centerline of this path and very near the point of longest duration of totality for the eclipse. We celebrated this by inviting our staff and supporters to witness the eclipse in this ideal location. From start to finish, the eclipse lasted roughly three hours. However, the main event – totality, when the moon’s disc completely covers the sun – only lasted 2 minutes and 38 seconds. There were gasps and exclamations of wonder among our group, which included dozens of people from several states around the U.S.
The sight of a total solar eclipse is one of nature’s most amazing shows. Not only is the experience amazing visually, but also auditorily. We heard birds and other wildlife react to the sky’s sudden darkening in the middle of the day. During totality, the area became so dark that Venus and Jupiter could be seen in the sky.
Many people have described the experience of a total eclipse as being a highly spiritual one. I can agree that it’s just something that is hard to put into words, but I feel very lucky to have been able to witness this historic eclipse in such a special place.
The Conservancy made the first acquisition at Mantle Rock in 1988, thanks to a donation from the Reynolds Metals Company, and eventually grew the preserve to 367 acres. In addition, the Conservancy has worked with partners to protect more than 2,000 acres of nearly contiguous conservation lands in the area through acquisitions, easements, partnerships and generous donations over the years.
The Conservancy’s initial interest in the area stemmed from the presence of a rare sandstone glade community type as well as multiple rare plants. The 188-foot long sandstone arch, known as Mantle Rock, supports a type of glade habitat that is very rare in west Kentucky. Some of the plants located here can be found nowhere else in the state. The arch itself is truly a site to behold, and is the longest rock span in the eastern U.S.
Mantle Rock also has a significant history. A portion of the Trail of Tears runs through the preserve, and during the harsh winter of 1838-9 many Cherokee sought shelter here before crossing the frozen Ohio River just a few miles to the west. Approximately 1,766 Cherokee spent about two weeks in the Mantle Rock area while waiting for the river to thaw and become passable.
In 2010, the Conservancy worked with The National Park Service, the Cherokee Nation, the Kentucky Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association, and the Boy Scouts of America to do a visitor interpretation project on the preserve. This project involved trail construction, infrastructure improvements, and the placement of interpretive signage throughout the preserve, to tell the story of both the ecology and history of the site. Remnants of other ancient Native American cultures can also be found on the preserve. The Kentucky chapter feels privileged to have the opportunity to protect not only the natural wonder of the area, but also the history associated with it.
Eclipse viewers got to explore all of these improvements firsthand, as I led a hike to the Mantle Rock arch before the eclipse began. After the hike, amateur astronomer Mike Lynch talked about the eclipse and interpreted the eclipse for visitors.
As you can see from the photos, it was a truly memorable day.