Seeing the Eclipse in Totality

I’m fortunate that I was able to take some time off work this week to go see the eclipse. Coincidentally, I was helping a friend move down to Atlanta, so we easily drove just over 90 minutes to Clemson to get into the path of totality. Seeing the eclipse in totality was an awe-inspiring experience; the difference between partial and complete coverage was literally night and day.

As the moon completed covered the sun, the temperature dropped precipitously, from a 90+ degree South Carolina summer day to about 75 degrees. The moon’s shadow made it feel like dusk, if not nighttime. Cicadas and katydids began chirping despite being nocturnal; simultaneously, birds went silent.

It’s not hard to imagine that we reacted just as ancient humans would have: staring at the sky in wonder, mouths agape, perhaps uttering an indication of being awestruck. Totality seemed like the eye of an angry god, tearing between dimensions momentarily to peer down at our world. Though speechlessness is a cliched reaction to amazing natural features, there are few words that can describe a total eclipse.

Instead, I’ll turn to some quotes from Annie Dillard’s 1982 essay Total Eclipse:

It began with no ado. It was odd that such a well advertised public event should have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker. I should have known right then that I was out of my depth. Without pause or preamble, silent as orbits, a piece of the sun went away. We looked at it through welders’ goggles. A piece of the sun was missing; in its place we saw empty sky…

Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it. During a partial eclipse the sky does not darken—not even when 94 percent of the sun is hidden…

I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte…

Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world.

image credit: CBC News

Dillard is correct when she comments that the world seems to lose itself during totality. Everything transmogrifies into an ethereal shade of bluish platinum. People and things move more slowly, as they might in front of a strobing light. Truly, it was the sort of experience that makes one (a) realize how small humanity is in the universe and (b) feel kinship towards the other watchers. My recommendation is that you make time to see the total eclipse in 2024.

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