Earth Astonish Me: Anticipating an Eclipse in the Age of Information
“It will be my parents’ last eclipse; it will be my daughter’s first.”
There are theories all over YouTube. Already I know too much. My special glasses meet the Transmission Requirements of ISO 12312-2, Filters for Direct Observation of the Sun. My nine-year-old returns home from school with key vocabulary words set to the tune of that old ’80s ballad, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” If my head wasn’t already stuffed with facts, she could provide.
But really, I’d like to be less ready. On the afternoon of August 21, what I want is to be astonished.
In the thick haze and cicada drone of this afternoon, the moon’s shadow will race at 1800 miles an hour across the United States, its path like a pageant sash draped from Oregon shoulder to South Carolina hip. On that decorated continental body the city of Nashville, my home, will be the largest to experience totality. This area hasn’t seen a total eclipse for more than five hundred years; not since 1979 has the US experienced one. Annie Dillard wrote ecstatically of that planetary pas de deux, and now her words surface repeatedly in my Facebook feed, shared for the occasion. But while Dillard’s ’79 eclipse darkened the Pacific Northwest and stretched into Canada, this one will shadow only the Lower 48—a first-ever occurrence—and sweep neatly from coast to coast (the next eclipse to do that will happen in 2045). For an estimated 55 million Americans, a swath of Tennessee will provide the closest and best view. You can imagine the nervous murmurs about traffic.
NPS Photo / Grand Canyon National Park
In early July, the viewing parties began to twinkle, distant stars on the blank expanse of the calendar, all clustered upon this one August Monday. A city-sponsored gathering at the baseball stadium; viewing parties at local parks. A brunch at a fancy hotel, with eggs Benedict and waffles. Free hot dogs in an auto dealer’s parking lot. Farm parties with celebrity chefs and live music.
I want to make the most of it, but I do not want to sip mimosas among strangers. I do not want to pay for parking or get a free commemorative koozie. I don’t want to feel, first, pity, for the eclipse-swag vendors—what a way to spend the celestial event of a lifetime, hawking souvenirs—and then shame, because who am I to say that padding one’s wallet with the profit from trinkets manufactured overseas isn’t just the right way to do the Great American Eclipse of 2017?
Kevin Hale, via Flickr
Still, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that, centuries ago, a total eclipse was cause for panic, a sign of doom—or a moment of great discovery.
Today, it is the strangest of things: absolutely predictable and astoundingly rare. The thought of it ignites my curiosities, my fierce devotion to the magic of the natural world. Just the phrase path of totality charms me—the repetition of sounds, the metaphoric sinew. Its very definition—the area covered as the moon’s shadow, or umbra, hits the earth—demands I slow down and consider it. A journey made by darkness, a trail seventy miles wide that will vanish as quickly as it appeared. On a hill in the Yakima Valley, as the sky went dark, Annie Dillard heard the other eclipse watchers scream. I might wish to feel that kind of awe, or fear.
Eugene Atget, “Eclipse, 1911,” via LACMA
An eclipse is also the surest of things, no alarms and no surprises. While so much of life—the very moments that will alter us the most—we cannot predict, we can know even the minute truths of a spectacular celestial event with utter certainty.
Yet it is a happening so far from the infinitesimal movements of us humans that to break it down to our science almost seems a hubristic offense. How can I restore to it some measure of its power to surprise? How can I make my two minutes count?
The answer, in the end, is simple. I know a place, a half-hour from downtown and ideal for eclipse-viewing. Large, wide-open lawn, a dome of sky above. Home to sundry animals and a small planet’s worth of rare plant species. Bourbon on the shelf, baby goats frisking in the barn, hummingbirds buzzing about—until the dark suddenly quiets them all. This, my parents’ land, is where I have decided to watch the sky go dark and feel the air go cool. My family beside me, all of us growing a little older as the shadow hits us and we listen to the birds cease to sing.
William and Frederick Langenheim, via The Met. Gilman Collection, gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005.
It will be my parents’ last eclipse; it will be my daughter’s first. It may well be the only total eclipse any of us are granted. In their presence, I hope to kindle the awe that too much knowledge, or the flurry of public celebration, might just stamp out. I try to imagine what I will remember, on normal days far into the future, of that one minute and fifty-seven seconds. “Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you,” Dillard writes. “But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know.”
Maybe she’s right, and it will be easier than I can even imagine. At the very least, the rest of today will fall away, and what remains will be the people, the place, the quiet luck of proximity and the even quieter mysteries of our interior selves, both so chromosomally shared and so separate. Two minutes, a lifetime, the overlapping of lives. Our threaded-together fates still largely unknown.
I want to hold my child, our heads tilted to the heavens, the very opposite image of gazing down at our devices. We will marvel at Dillard’s “old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone.”
Chrishna, via Flickr
And when the blackness peels away and August torpor clamps down again (August, I do not care for you, it’s true)—what will we carry forth? I hear my daughter, wanting to know what we’re going to do next. My husband: “Back to work.” Me, checking this off my to-do list: eclipse . None of us will be spooked right to death. “One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief,” Dillard wrote. “From the depths of mystery and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.”
Yet I write this wishing, impossibly, for what only fiction could bestow upon those scant two minutes: for life to irrevocably change—at the very moment when we seem vividly lost in our darkest legacies. In the absence of such wizardry, I will accept the stillness and awe experienced alongside the ones I love most. I will accept a summer day turned inside out.
And I write this wanting to know: How did you and you and you experience the eclipse? Whose hands did you clasp at the wonder of the moon blotting out the sun, breaking the day in two?