He warned me.
They all did. “Once you’ve seen one,” they said with laughing eyes, “you’ll be chasing eclipses, too, for the rest of your life!” That was months ago, at a talk given by Bob Naeye–former editor-in-chief of Sky and Telescope–at the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg. The room was filled to overflowing–a few astronomers and veteran eclipsers, and a lot of interested lay-people. I was there with a group of students and a few of their parents, preparing for an epic school field trip to the Oregon desert to see the eclipse. We chose Oregon’s central desert to ensure clear skies, and for proximity to other sites of interest: Crater Lake, the Redwoods, Fossil Beds, and Oregon Caves.
It took two full school years to prepare and fund-raise for the trip, and it was easily worth all that effort. For most of the kids, this was the farthest from home they’d ever been, and we were out there for 16 days, camping at beachside campgrounds and in national parks. Travelogue with more photos is here. The eclipse was a great draw, the perfect once-in-a-lifetime event to serve as centerpiece of the trip’s learning feast, the ultimate peak experience before heading home.
But I’ll admit that I was mostly looking forward to other things: being present when the kids saw the crystalline desert sky at night; watching their faces when we crested the caldera rim and saw Crater Lake’s deep-blue immensity for the first time; stretching to hold hands all the way around a redwood trunk; interacting with wild starfish, anemones, and crabs; helping kids dig for real fossils in real cliffs under the harsh desert sun. All familiar and beloved to me, known wonders I was eager to share. I didn’t really believe the eclipse would be all that special. I wasn’t expecting a deeply emotional spiritual experience.
Here it is three full weeks after those magical two minutes of totality, and I’m still unsure how to describe the experience. There was a feeling of anticipation when the moon made first contact with the sun’s disc, then slowly began devouring it. It was slow but fun to watch. Over the next hour or so, the light around us dimmed, not suddenly or obviously, but the whole world began to look thin, papery, two-dimensional. It was like the opposite of an M.C. Escher drawing: instead of a flat drawing appearing to have depth in a tricky way, here was the real world’s fullness appearing to flatten in a subtle, sneaky way.
I fairly danced when the flat white bedsheet we laid on the grass began to ripple like water waves as “shadow ripples” moved across it. The elation was partly due to knowing that this phenomena is a rare treat, even in a total eclipse. The ripples are projections of thermal turbulence in the upper atmosphere, bending the edge of the moon’s shadow as it approaches, making it dance on our sheet. I became aware that the ripples traced a laser-straight line of connection from my sheet up through the stratosphere to the moon and sun, somehow drawing me into their primordial dance in space and time, holds movement within stillness, and binds descendants to ancestors. I felt the shadow ripples as a rare and precious gift, a moment of connection with events far away and long ago.
And then, it was dark. Not midnight dark: the horizon looked like early dawn, not just in the east but in every direction all around. A handful of panicked birds winged frantically across my view. The protagonist of this unearthly show revealed angel wings of wispy grey, tendrils of mist streaming out from the ominous black disc where the sun should have been. Stars twinkled clear and bright overhead, while Mars and Venus lit the shoulders of the sun’s empty ghost. It was overwhelming, breathtaking, beautiful, numinous, enchanting. I stood enraptured, and it was over. Two minutes is a painfully short time. Far, far too soon the thin flat light returned, waxing stronger minute by minute. I exhaled, and the breath caught, became a sob. Tears ran, painting my cheeks with joy and wonder and … awe.
Awe. That overused word which used to mean something like “stop-you-in-your-tracks, see-the-face-of-God, jaw-dropping, eye-popping, breath-taking, earthshakingly too-wonderful-to-describe.” That’s how this was. Awe-some.
Why? What’s so special about seeing the moon block the sun? I don’t really know. I can’t explain it. Three thoughts, however:
1- An eclipse connects us in an intimate, visceral way with the heavens. This is the essence of my Seven Candles work, except that Seven Candles has to get there by way of the intellect: describing what science has found, teasing out the mind-blowing aspects, striving to forge a visceral connection, and then experiencing the raw emotionality of being part of it all. An eclipse is a direct immersive experience, a laser shot from the heavens straight to the soul, until you’re left gasping for breath and pleading for more.
2- An eclipse shakes our deepest primordial foundations. The sun rises, crosses the sky, and sets. Everyday. It just does, and we know that. We depend on it. We presume it. And one day, it simply goes out, weirdly, for a little while. Earthquakes do this to us, too, literally pulling the ground from beneath our feet, except there’s nothing glorious or elegantly beautiful about an earthquake. Our ancestors for whom eclipses were foreboding portents of doom weren’t just being foolish; the experience of totality is wildly unsettling, even when we know exactly what’s happening, and why, and completely trust that all will be well. Unsettling and joyous, both, somehow.
3- It just seems awfully peculiar that the distances to the moon and sun are precisely the same ratio as their diameters, so that the comparably tiny moon is just about exactly the same “size” in the sky as the unimaginably colossal sun. Just right to perfectly cover it, exactly revealing the sun’s corona, no more, no less. I’m not saying this isn’t a coincidence, I’m just saying that it’s part of the appeal of an eclipse. The perfection of it adds some mystery and magic.
If you didn’t get to see the 2017 total eclipse of the sun, I’m warning you: once you’ve seen one, you’ll be chasing eclipses too, for the rest of your life! See you in Texas in 2024?