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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“It is a spectacle pure and simple, the most magnificent free show that nature presents to man. . . . [N]ot to view the coming one would be literally to lose the opportunity of a lifetime.”
— “On the Solar Eclipse of 1925,” The New York Times

Tyler Norgren's new book about the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse

Tyler Nordgren’s new book about the August 21, 2017 

To witness a total solar eclipse total solar eclipse is a rare phenomenon.  The last time one touched the mainland United States was in 1979.  But on August 21, 2017 some of us in the United States will have a chance to see one without traveling too far.  A continent-spanning eclipse like the one this year hasn’t occurred in the United States since 1918.

Total solar eclipses happen when our Moon is exactly the right distance from the Earth to cover the sun completely.  For a couple of minutes, the Earth is fully in the shadow of the Moon.

Eclipses actually happen fairly frequently, but sometimes the Moon’s shadow is cast in the endless reaches of space.  Imperfect alignments happen, too, and those are partial eclipses.  To experience a total solar eclipse in one particular point on Earth more than once is very rare indeed.  Astronomer and physics professor Tyler Nordgren, in his new book, Sun, Moon, Earth, says, “Though eclipses happen roughly twice each year, each one follows a different path across our planet.  The patterns repeat in shape every eighteen years, but each time, the path is positioned one-third of the way around the planet and a little farther north or south than before. . . . eventually any spot on Earth can expect, on average, to see totality every 375 years.”

The path of totality for the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse cuts a swath across the entire United States.  You can find maps at http://www.GreatAmericanEclipse.com.  It will start at 10:26 PDT on the Oregon coast and 93 minutes later will move away from the Atlantic coast.

Path of totality on August 21, 2017

Path of totality on August 21, 2017

 

Path of totality in Oregon (from Great American Eclipse website)

Path of totality in Oregon (from Great American Eclipse website)

I have made camping reservations on the Oregon coast for a few days overlapping the day of the eclipse.  That morning, I will have to drive about 2 hours south to be in the path of totality.  Barring clouds (always a possibility on the coast), I should experience one of Nature’s most awesome shows.

The descriptions in Nordgren’s book have primed me to expect a wondrous and multi sensory few minutes:  “. . . the temperature drops, birds grow quiet, shadows sharpen, and colors become muted and fade.  Then, all at once, the Sun turns black and the stars come out.  Overhead a ghostly aura steams outwards around the Sun’s dark disk.”

And, “The corona, a ring of immense pearly tendrils, envelopes the darkness and stretches off into the sky in all directions.  It is unimaginably beautiful and only visible during these few precious minutes of totality.  All around it are the brighter stars and planets, invisible until now; it is a day that has become night at noon, with the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars overhead all at once.”

You don’t want to miss this year’s eclipse because you will have a long wait for another one.  The next total solar eclipses on American soil will happen in 2024, 2044, 2045, and 2052.

I wonder how I will be affected by seeing a day with two dawns and midnight at noon?

“. . .[T]he great lesson of the eclipse to the masses who saw it is that one little unusual phenomenon in the skies makes us realize how closely akin we all are in this common planetary boat out on an ethereal sea that has no visible shores.”
— The New York Times, January 25, 1925