As a child I was very interested in space and astronomy. I had the posters, the small amateur telescope, the maps of the stars, etc. I had known since quite a young age that when I was eighteen, in August 1999, a total solar eclipse would pass over southern England and parts of France. As the time got closer, plans became less nebulous: Mum worked for a coach tour company and they were planning to take eclipse-watchers to France to increase the chance of clear skies. I could go with them. Sadly it wasn’t to be. In an epic example of a first world problem, not only was I offered a place on a tour to see the astronomical event of a lifetime, but I was also registered on a five-week trip to trek in the Himalayas with my sixth form. They were both at the same time! What a smug, middle class example of a double booking: some people wait a lifetime for a pseudo-spiritual experience. Here was I, at eighteen, with a pair to choose between. The Himalayas deposit had been paid and I was part of a group, so that was the obvious choice. My long-held dream to see a total eclipse would have to be postponed.
On the Himalayas trip, the day of the eclipse came when we were at the Rakaposhi glacier in northern Pakistan. That morning, we told our guide, Hakeem, an experienced and urban youngster from Rawalpindi, that a third of the sun would be covered later in the day, and you could see it by looking through a CD (I’m not sure, looking back, how safe that is, but there you go!) He was having none of it. Until he saw it with his own eyes, he was convinced it was the start of some prank we were playing on him. Now, I think of that often-told, probably-false story about Columbus or some other explorer using his knowledge of the eclipse to gain the upper hand over native people:
“If you don’t do as I say, I will take away the sun!”
“I will bring it back if you do what I say!”
*Savages capitulate. Imperialism wins!*
Just before the eclipse happened, we were exploring a valley and met a shepherd who lived in a tiny hut. I was gripped with the same superiority as those medieval adventurers. “In fifteen minutes,” I bellowed, overcoming a language barrier with sheer force of will, “sun will start disappear!”
“Oh, you’re talking about the eclipse. I think it will be more like 20 minutes. We should get around 30% here. I listened to a documentary on the World Service.”
Astronomy is a difficult hobby to take beyond pointing and memorizing. As a child, you have the will and the time but not the means. My parents were extremely kind and let me stay up late for lunar eclipses and took me to a less-light-polluted area to see Hale-Bopp, but as a kid you’re essentially stuck with the patch of sky you can see from the garden over the orange haze of the town, when it’s not cloudy, between sunset and bedtime. This is the state of things for a while, or it was with me as, like many young adults, I had no sense of perspective or priority. Looking back, if I had bought far fewer CDs and books in my early twenties, spent less money on food and booze, I could easily have saved enough to get to darker more exciting skies. But I didn’t. Reasoning through all this, it’s clear why most ‘hobbyists’ tend to be retired middle class people. That wonderful combination of time and money, denied to most people on earth, must be so glorious. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a taste of that this year. Having some luck with work and a long summer without obligations, meant we could be in Madras, Oregon, on the center line of totality, with little chance of cloud cover, to see the long-awaited spectacle of the Great American Eclipse.
Eclipses are sometimes seen as portents of doom. Some cultures treat the banishment of the sun as a warning that a god is displeased. Only by showing your penitence and devotion can you placate the deity, causing it to release the sun and postpone future annihilation to another day. Luckily, thus far, that has always worked and the sun has been freed from entrapment within a matter of minutes.
This latest eclipse, August 21st 2017, heralded many apocalyptic predictions of the modern kind: traffic disruption and disappointment. Media reports in the weeks leading up to the big day were choked with warnings of days of traffic jams before and after the event, power outages, fuel shortages and overcrowding as the world rushed into rural America to witness the majesty. Weather forecasters cautioned against excitement as forest fires might completely obscure the sky.
Earthly disruption didn’t worry me. I had paid a few dollars to reserve a parking space in the line of totality, and I planned to get there late at night the previous day, allowing around twelve hours for any problems. As long as the car was full of snacks, drinks and gasoline, I knew I could endure a little inconvenience. More concerning was the weather. Madras, Oregon, was touted years in advance as the best place to see the eclipse because clear skies are almost guaranteed in its high-desert location. Most of Oregon’s rain falls west of the mountains, and Madras sits snugly just east of some impressive peaks that usually force all the moisture from the air before it gets to town. Forest fires, on the other hand, had not even entered my mind. Now, with just days to go, and all other locations fully booked, local news reports blazed with stories about a record fire season and skies being completely covered. Just a few weeks before, I had driven through Montana while fires were burning and the sky was completely covered. The sun was just a faint glow through the haze.
Thankfully, whatever god controls these things wanted the people of Madras to get a good look at his saber-rattling. A little rain and a change in the wind meant there was no more than a slight wisp of smoke on the feted morning. I can’t be certain it didn’t affect the visibility a little, but it wasn’t noticeable to me. And the final spectacle was still more amazing than I ever imagined.
At 9:06am, I, like the many thousands of other people parked in a dry field on the outskirts of Madras, put on my special glasses and looked at the sun. The appointed moment had arrived. Slowly but surely, a tiny nibble was taken out of the top right. As the nibble became a larger bite (and people all around were resorting to the same obvious analogy as it so perfectly describes the appearance of the early partial phase), a strange confused feeling grew within me. Rationally, I knew exactly what was happening, but because the new moon is completely invisible in the sky, the ever-growing missing portion of sun does genuinely feel like some sort of strange magic. Whatever part of me has grown accustomed to the certainty of the sun’s shape was oddly discombobulated and excited.
By 10am, the quality of the light was noticeable different. Colors were dimmed and shadows seemed sharper. There was a greyish quality to life. The sun itself, however, when viewed in quick snatches without the glasses, out of the corner of one’s eye, looked no different. The sun is so bright that it would be impossible to look closely enough with the naked eye to discern the shape of even a 60% partial eclipse, without risking serious damage. I thought about the majority of people in history, for whom a solar eclipse was not a predicted event but a sudden shock. If I had been working outside on that day, having no idea what was about to happen, even now, as totality grew very close, I wouldn’t have noticed any changes, especially if I was absorbed in something else. I read in a blog that a 95% eclipse is 10,000 times brighter than a total eclipse. And now I understand that from experience. It was only in the seconds before totality that any truly big transformations began.
At 10.18am, just one minute before totality, things started to look eerily dark, excitement rose, and a shadow drew over the mountains to the west as totality started there. Suddenly, the sun was gone. The sky was completely black. I could see nothing at all. This wasn’t what I expected. Where is the corona and the… then I realized I still had the eclipse goggles on. I snapped them off and immediately gasped. Where the sun had been moments before, there was now a deep black hole in the sky surrounded by a sparkling blue ring dotted with wispy prominences. Outside this glittering circle, the rest of the sky was a rich blue, like a night sky in a children’s book. Lower, at the horizon, was a red-orange glow, the so-called 360-degree sunset caused by sunlight seeping into our privileged circle from the surrounding un-eclipsed areas.
My only slight regret is that I didn’t film totality. I know my measly camera phone wouldn’t have done justice to the events in the sky, but it could have helped me relive the reactions of the people. Everyone in this strange enormous car park was pointing and gasping and whispering excitedly. A single firework was set off. High in the sky, in a place you would never normally see it, Venus shone out like the Star of Bethlehem on a John Lewis Christmas card. The colors were all wrong, richer above than below, the earth was muted but the heavens were in technicolor. The whole sight was so unusual and unexpected, even for those of us who had been reading about it for thirty years, that a lot of people, including me, started to laugh in disbelief. I had goosebumps and the hairs on my neck stood on end. The temperature drop was noticeable and I just wished I had longer to take everything in.
As the second minute drew towards its end, my husband and I kissed as the famous diamond ring appeared. Within an instant the sun was too bright to look at. We turned to the west and saw Mount Jefferson grow light. We put our glasses back on and returned our gaze to the sun. It was, once more, just a half-eaten biscuit. The people around us shifted back to activity as they do at the end of a pop concert, when the special effects are over and the normal lights have been turned back on. We dashed into our car, hoping to beat the traffic, and headed towards the exit. Our final glimpse of the end of the eclipse, an hour later as the moon eventually cleared the sun, was leaning out of the window in the middle of a traffic jam that lasted five hours. It took us eight hours that day to go just eighty miles, and by the evening life felt ordinary again as we went on with our holiday.
But, for just two minutes on the morning of August 21, 2017, leaning on the bonnet of a dusty Ford Focus in a small town in the middle of Oregon, I achieved a dream, and magic was real.