The traffic notwithstanding, it couldn’t have gone better. This past Monday, in Seneca, South Carolina, my wife, my son, and one of my daughters witnessed three minutes and thirty seven seconds of totality.
The journey began last summer when I decided, without consulting my wife Kathleen, that we had to make the trip to see the eclipse. We had seen partial eclipses before, but never a total eclipse, and here it was, passing just a day’s drive south of us. In terms of weather, South Carolina wasn’t the best choice. It probably had the highest chance of clouds of any part of the path, not to mention the potential for a hurricane or tropical storm. But in this case, closeness counted, because I only had limited time I could take off from work. After selecting Seneca and finding an available hotel, I sprang the surprise on Kathleen and booked the rooms.
In January, I bought a pack of solar filters–not the glasses, but the cheaper cards that you hold in front of your face. I also constructed a cheap projection viewer the weekend before the eclipse. (See the photo at the top). This was based on plans found online by one of my colleagues and made use of lenses he purchased. He got two sets for $6 and kindly gave me one set.
The morning of August 21, clouds began to drift over Seneca, but by the time the eclipse began, the sun was in the clear and remained that way the entire time. While the moon’s disk bit into the sun, I monitored it using the projection viewer and took some time to watch the goings on here on Earth. The light became noticeably dimmer by the halfway point. Gaps in the leaves of nearby trees projected images of the eclipse on the asphalt parking lot. Shortly before totality, streetlights and security lights switched on.
We watched through our filters as the last sliver of sunlight shrank and winked out, then lowered them and looked into the inky dark of the moon surrounded by the blaze of the solar corona. Venus shone brightly to the west. Kathleen saw another object, probably Jupiter, to the east, although I missed it. To the northeast, the only part of the horizon we could see, the orange-red of sunrise/sunset appeared although the sun was high in the sky. As the moon continued its crawl across the face of the sun, sparkles winked on and off in the gaps between the lunar mountains. Near the end of totality, a couple of them sparkled ruby red on the trailing edge of the moon.
You try to take in everything in those brief moments, but there is too much. It is the longest/shortest two and a half minutes of your life. And there is something else, something you can feel rather than see, something born of the whole complex of phenomena that make up a total solar eclipse: a sense that this is organic, alive, intimately connected with your own life. We know the sun is the source of all life on our planet, but for those couple of minutes when it isn’t there in the middle of the day, this knowledge becomes tangible. The whole world changes. The temperature drops. The light diminishes. Animals prepare for the coming of night even though it’s nowhere near nightfall. It is as though the universe is reminding us that we, ultimately, are not in charge.
Being an amateur astronomer, I don’t think people ever really feared that the sun might not return following an eclipse. Eclipses don’t happen that often in any one place, but they happen somewhere on Earth every two or three years, and people have long understood the reason: the passage of the moon in front of the sun. Nothing happens to the sun itself, and the moon never stops in its orbit. So no eclipse ever lasts more than three or so hours, and no total eclipse lasts more than a few minutes. But witnessing a deep eclipse, and especially totality, does bring our dependency upon the sun home in a way nothing else can.