Yes, I’m one of the multitude, one of the Pilgrims of the Occultation.
I mean, I’ve seen photos and videos. I know the mechanics of it. But I decided that I would regret it if I didn’t make an effort to see it.
Total eclipse of the sun.
I experienced a partial eclipse, back in the 80s. We schoolkids watched the dappling on the ground assume crescent shapes, saw the air grow dim but the shadows stay sharp. Now, in 2017, we’d get the chance to see all but 3% of the sun obscured by the moon – directly, thanks to the safety glasses we now have available – by just stepping outside. But here was a chance to see the full monty, close enough to drive to. Even better, I could make a memory with my son: an adventure to see a rare celestial event.
So I spent some of my leave time, and cashed in a chunk of my wife’s goodwill. The young’un got permission to skip some classes. Avoiding the reportedly snarled interstates, we headed towards the line on the map which marked the center of totality. Along the way, we passed small congregations gathered at crossroads, pecan groves, and church parking lots, armed with tents, coolers, grills and the occasional telescope. We were a bit north of Saluda, SC, when the moon began easing across the solar disk, so we turned off on a side road, then again on a dirt road, parking at a woods road across from a pasture. Out came the eclipse glasses, first thing; after confirming that the event was definitely underway, we broke for lunch. That’s the thing about partial eclipses. Direct observation requires special equipment, and the event occurs at a snail’s pace. For the next hour, we watched the landscape and donned our cardboard glasses every ten or so minutes. Yes, the sky got darker, but not as much as you might expect given the waning sliver of sun. The August breeze took on a hint of late September. Off in the distance, chainsaws continued their droning, for “working can til can’t” doesn’t take eclipses into account.
The many puffy clouds that dogged us all the way north pulled back like a curtain in the final minutes leading up to totality. We both stood and watched as the sun vanished by increments. The last ragged sliver vanished, and the glasses came off.
A partial eclipse is an interesting phenomenon. A total eclipse is something altogether different. I knew it was coming and what it would look like, but like so many things, being there and merely seeing a photo are very different things. It was more than a pale circle, it was a striking ring of white fire set in a black sky. It was beautiful, it was riveting, and without the benefit of knowledge it would be utterly terrifying. I can see how the event would have been a frightful portent in ancient times. On this day, it elicited an exclamation of wonder from the jaded teen – certainly a favorable omen!
Totality was one of those hanging moments: at two-and-a-half minutes, a brief midpoint of the event; yet within the darkness everything holds its breath in an otherworldly pause (now that I think about it, it was reminiscent of Frodo putting on the ring and seeing the Eye staring back at him…).
And then the liminal moment ended. The process reversed, as the crack in the sky expanded, the air brightened, and my awareness returned. For, I realized, in the darkness all my senses narrowed to the view of the corona. I had planned to listen for songbirds ceasing their calls, or for night insects taking up theirs. Did the loggers put down their tools as the sky went black? Were the clouds on the horizon still lit? I couldn’t tell you. I have a memory of the cool air, but apart from a bit of conversation there was nothing but the blackened sun and the camera I used to record it.
Now that the key minutes of the two-plus hour event were done… I must confess, we didn’t hang around. After five minutes of appreciating the waxing crescent, I asked how long he wanted to stay. He replied “as long as you want to,” which I took to mean “take your time, but I’m good.” So, we packed up in the still-filtered light, and joined the long southward caravan of folks who came for the totality.
In the week since the eclipse, it hasn’t completely left my thoughts; I am curious how, or if, the event eventually settles into my consciousness; with it be a check on a bucket list, or will it be one of those memories I carry after many others have fallen to obscurity? I know people who scoff at all the fuss about the eclipse. One older gentleman watched the proceedings on TV, and found it to be faddish and silly. I’ll admit that, had I been immersed in the party atmosphere of many of the televised gatherings, I’d be tempted to agree. But I took a road less traveled, and stood with my son, alone and quiet and open to the world. At that place and in that brief, stretched moment, the sun and moon performed their glorious pas de deux for us alone.