“This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt.”—Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse”
An astronomer I know told me of the 1979 total solar eclipse he saw in Manitoba. You must know this: the astronomer can fill a conversation by himself as both informer and inquisitor, providing both questions and answers. He likes to talk and is very adept at entertaining and educating eager listeners. His wife gives him space, content to slink comfortably in silence—eclipsed in his good-natured verbosity.
He recorded his eclipse encounter on a cassette tape. After later replaying the tape, the astronomer realized that his wife chattered through the eclipse while he remained silent. He shrugged. “It brings different things out of different people.”
Everyone who has witnessed a total solar eclipse reports that to watch the moon blot out the sun like a judgment is a spiritual experience, life changing even. Some have wept. Some have screamed. Annie Dillard wrote an essay.
A total eclipse is coming in August 21. I wonder what it will bring out of me?
They’re calling it the Great American Eclipse, as if America will manufacture it in Detroit or project it from Texas. One might picture the sun, when we finally glimpse its corona, wearing a red hat with tired font: Make America Great Again.
Though it is the same moon that crosses the same sun in eclipses the world over, and though there will be other total eclipses, we rightly claim this eclipse as our own because it’s showing exclusively on US mainland soil. Supposedly, the last time this happened was AD 436; the next time will be 2316.
The eclipse will only air once, no rewind, no reruns.
To prepare for the eclipse, last week my friend bought our glasses. “They’re so cheap,” she said, bending the flimsy cardboard. “But I guess the eclipse will only be two minutes.” (1).
Two minutes and ten seconds, I think, struck with the brevity, the specificity of this event. Eclipses keep a tight schedule. We have instant replay for our sports, repeat setting for our music, and downloads to watch at our leisure. But the eclipse will only air once, no rewind, no reruns. At 2:38 the show starts, be there or be square. We dither over seconds, marking the duration with precision, like time of birth and time of death and the time stamp of a punch clock.
Though Carbondale, Illinois, will revel in the longest duration of totality for 2 minutes and 40 seconds, people will flock to anywhere within that much-mentioned path of totality, a relatively narrow strip from Oregon to South Carolina. After all, to almost see a total eclipse is to miss it completely.
“I’ve seen partial eclipses before and—” The astronomer made a noise with his mouth, like a party popper, a cheap thrill. “You’ve got to be in the path of totality. People will be in areas where they’ll see the eclipse at 97% and have no idea the sight they’re missing an hour away. It’s the difference of night and day—literally.” And to watch it on TV, the astronomer snorted, “Would be like phoning it in on your wedding night.”
So the weekend before August 21, I’ll drive six hours to my parents’ home in Greenville, South Carolina. According to projected numbers on greatamericaneclipse.com, over 2 million people could possibly trek to my home state for this event.
When the astronomer watched the full eclipse in ’79, he did so beside a construction site. As the darkness fell, men in the backhoes turned on their lights and continued moving earth, too engulfed in their work or dimness to track constellations midday or keep appointment with eclipses (3). They sensed the darkness, but they did not see the eclipse.
They sensed the darkness, but they did not see the eclipse.
I, for one, wouldn’t miss seeing the eclipse for the world.
But what if I do?
Of course I am concerned that the weather will not cooperate, that clouds will roll in (as they often do on Southern summer afternoons), obscuring the show like a curtain. “Look at the weather the night before,” the astronomer advised. “Plan to drive two, three hours to clearer skies.” But if common sense leads the millions of other eclipse watchers to do the same, officials fear gridlock on interstates, with witless drivers stopping mid highway to watch the sky.
But more than the weather or traffic, I am afraid that this eclipse will not change my life—that I’ll see the darkness, but miss the eclipse. What if I’m too aware, too prepared, shot up on the critics’ praise like for the summer blockbuster movie that halfway through I realized should have been rented for $1.50 from Redbox?
What if the eclipse passes before I can read the epiphanies it smears across the sky? What if I don’t lose myself in the deep shadow or am not transfixed by the fiery halo of sun or not hypnotized by the shadow bands writhing across the ground?
I might not worry if it weren’t for my track record with disappointment. A few years ago at the Smithsonian in D.C., my struggle with disillusionment surfaced twice. I’ve seen prize squash more impressive than the Hope diamond. And the shriveled remains of the giant squid—this was what Nemo fought against so valiantly to save Ned Land? Where was the snapping beak, the dinner-plate eyes, the fearsome suction-cupped tentacles? (2)
I dread to ever see the Grand Canyon, afraid I might sigh over what others are breathless. Perhaps the problem is that nothing can match the immensity of my expectations.
In my fear of disappointment, I wish to stand on a solitary mountain or lie in a field somewhere to watch this eclipse, to commune with my wonder or disappointment, with only nature around to witness me witness the event. But even the cows will respond, plodding toward the barn, and the swallows will change their course toward home. In its own way, even nature obeys the power of an eclipse.
Together we’ll see the eclipse and make of it what we will.
This week an article headline stated, “The Solar Eclipse Path Will Overwhelmingly Pass Over Trump Country.” On it went, rehashing numbers and statistics, a poker in the embers, a stick to the sleeping bear, a fingernail beneath the scab, a tug to the fray. What is it to us the path that the center of the solar system chooses to take across the nation? It knows nothing of our squabbles, the high drama of earth—and does not care. The eclipse will draw a line all will gather on—no matter their usual party line. The eclipse has come to unite us, to distract us with a display more magnificent than our old standby, divisive obsessions. It has come, perhaps, not a moment too soon.
I’ll take in the view at a park, surrounded by hundreds of people drawn from the small town and from places beyond the Carolina borders, states, perhaps even continents, away. Together we’ll watch the coming darkness; together we’ll see the eclipse and make of it what we will. And anyway, maybe that is the point.
The last time that an eclipse shadowed the United States in this particular path, from coast to coast, was June 8, 1918. That autumn, another shadow darkened the world—the Spanish Influenza. When that shadow passed it had taken almost 700,000 lives, affecting a quarter of the United States and elsewhere a third of the planet’s population. Before the end they piled the bodies in the streets, black and blue from suffocation. Do you suppose they recalled the eclipse then, pondering whether it had been a sign, a premonition too glorious to read, too ominous to have been ignored as the country gasped, drawing the last of their breaths together?
I wonder, too, what else is coming for us later or soon? For what other kind of storm or eclipse might we gather to view in totality?
Perhaps then we’ll remember our wonder not merely that the heavenly bodies aligned, but that on an August day, in a year when the nation could hardly agree on anything, the heavens brought us together, as it seems only heaven could. In one small swath across the nation, we huddled until the scene had passed, at last comprehending our place in the universe.
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1. It’s a dangerous misconception that you’ll wear your glasses only to see the moment of totality. In a total eclipse you can take the glasses off only at the time of totality. However at all other times in an eclipse, it is necessary to wear them. Never look at the sun without proper eye protection: eclipse blindness is a real thing! Since in Greenville the partial eclipse begins at 1:09 and ends at 4:02, I sure hope those glasses are comfortable, because we could be wearing them for up to almost 3 hours—minus 2 minutes and 10 seconds, of course.
2. More than likely it was a colossal squid exaggerated by Jules Verne’s terrific imagination.
3. A phrase Eudora Welty used in her book One Writer’s Beginnings.