But seriously, wasn’t that spectacular? Like you probably were, I was pretty well prepared to see something special. I got hold of a copy of David Baron’s American Eclipse weeks ago. I re-read Annie Dillard’s stunning essay more than once. I bought NASA-approved glasses for the whole family–plus a few extras in case of scratched lenses. We gathered in a clear, sunny spot right on time to watch the sun start slipping away, and I saw exactly what I was told I would. And it was still a surprising experience.
That was another thing I’d been prepared for. Almost everyone who’s been through a total solar eclipse comments on how overwhelming it is. Not that it mattered in the moment. As parents ruefully discover when they watch their children make mistakes, you have to find out about some things for yourself. Now I’ve found out about this, and I know that my descriptions won’t do justice to the reality.
Strange that one of the byproducts of such an indescribable event is the compulsion to talk about it, even with the people who stood next to you during the whole thing. We were struck the hardest by the uncanny quality of the fading light as totality approached. It was remarkable to feel the baking heat persist until the moon had cut off all but four or five percent of the available sunshine–how powerful that engine is! Only then did we detect a creeping chill. A bluish dusk fell, but with the shadows in all the wrong places. The ground was spangled with crescent-shaped slivers cast by the natural pinhole cameras among the leaves, and we all looked to each other like urchins in the same aquarium. Maybe it was that watery sensation that made us hold our breath. Maybe.
What struck me in the aftermath was the joy of it all. Despite the unnaturalness that surrounded us, we were elated. Neighbors who never met before got into conversation; we shared our precious, hard-won eye protectors; and we couldn’t quite tear ourselves apart when it was over. We made foolish plans to get together next time. While I walked away thinking about what would be left of me in 150 years, I also thought about the here and now and how different it is from the past.
Our eclipse experience was the perfect opposite of almost every other throughout history. Where we took delight, our antique ancestors saw ill omens and frightening portents. Milton in Paradise Lost poeticizes the old terror and confusion:
As when the Sun, new risen,
Looks through the horizontal misty air,
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the Moon,
In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
The difference, of course, is knowledge. Even if we haven’t studied astronomy ourselves, we’ve been reassured by those who have. Instead of being a shocking, unexpected departure from the natural order, an eclipse for us is a confirmation of our deep understanding of that order, calculated down to the second, whole centuries in advance. In one sense, Monday’s sky show was a rather humdrum affair.
Though we’re not without fear today. In fact, the past few weeks have instilled many of us with dread unlike any in memory. An overstatement? Perhaps, but there’s a lot to worry about. The heavenly spectacle we’ve all just collectively lived should serve as a reminder–especially to us, book sellers, book buyers, book readers–of the values that get us through trying times. Respect for science, understanding, and shared experience. From the darkness, hope.