Anticipating the August 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

January 17, 2017

Path of totality on August 21, 2017

Path of totality on August 21, 2017

My close friends and family know that I love reading about and researching places I will be visiting on upcoming trips.  For me, this process of discovery whets my anticipation and clues me in to things I might look for when I am actually on the ground at my destination.  I don’t want to over plan, and I do want to stay open to serendipitous encounters.  But I very much enjoy the planning stages.

So with my calendar pencilled in to drive to the Oregon Coat to see the total eclipse of the sun on August 21st, I was thrilled to come across an essay, “Total Eclipse,” by Annie Dillard about her experiences watching the 1979 total solar eclipse in the Yakima Valley of Washington State.  Her descriptions were so vivid that I modified some of the things I had been imagining about seeing the sun disappear.  For example:

  • I might not actually see the moon as I normally picture it in the sky in those moments leading up to the eclipse.  Dillard says, “You do not see the moon.  So near the sun, it is as completely invisible as the stars are by day.”
  • The eclipsed sun might appear as a very small circle in the sky, not as the big, overwhelming orb I had in my mind’s eye for such an extraordinary event:  “The hole where the sky belongs is very small.  A thin ring of light marked its place. . . . the ring is as small as one goose in a flock of migrating geese . . . The sun we see is less than half the diameter of a dime held at arm’s length.”
  • I hadn’t thought about how swiftly the dark shadow of the moon would come at the moment of total eclipse, and how terrifying this approaching darkness might be.  Dillard and the people watching on the hillside where she stood screamed involuntarily.  Here is how she describes it:  “The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us.  We no sooner saw it than it was upon  us, like thunder.  It roared up the valley.  It slammed our hill and knocked us out.  It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon.  I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour.  Language can give no sense of this sort of speed — 1,800 miles an hour.  It was 195 miles wide.  No end was in sight — you saw only the edge.  It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like a plague behind it.”
  • I am now prepared for the draining of color from my surroundings in the sudden darkness.  With the absence of light, objects apparently take on an unearthly silver cast:  “The sun was going, and the world was wrong.  The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. . . . The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. . . . The sky was navy blue.  My hands were silver.”

I sensed that Dillard’s experience of watching the total solar eclipse was so alien and disorienting that she was at a loss for words to describe it until time passed and she had some distance from it.  She says, “I saw, early in the morning, the sun diminish against a backdrop of sky.  I saw a circular piece of that sky appear suddenly detached, blackened, and backlighted; from nowhere it came and overlapped the sun.  It did not look like the moon.  It was enormous and black.  If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once.”

She says, “The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover.  The hatch in the brain slammed.  Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky.”

The total eclipse “began with no ado.”  The moon, when it exactly covered the sphere of the sun was “an abrupt black body out of nowhere.”  The time of the sun’s absence was short — about 2 minutes, and then it was over.

Witnessing a total eclipse of the sun promises top be one of those experiences that one remembers for their entire lives.  One comes face-to-face with the implacable movements of the planets, moons, and stars, something so immense and out-of-our control that it must make one feel insubstantial and unnecessary to the workings of the universe.  It is hard to anticipate how I will feel if I am fortunate enough to watch the 2017 eclipse.  I am praying for clear skies!

“One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief.  From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.”

— all quotes from Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse,” from Teaching a Stone to Talk

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2 Responses to “Anticipating the August 2017 Total Solar Eclipse”


  1. […] to view one on American soil.  I wrote about this in a couple of blog posts (you can link to them here and here).  Early on I had made plans to watch the eclipse from the Oregon coast, but recently I […]


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