I have now witnessed a full solar eclipse and lived to tell about it. Survival wasn’t a lock, given the fate of a surprising number of popes and kings. In times past an eclipse provoked more dread than awe. The 840 eclipse so terrified Emperor Louis of Bavaria that he reportedly expired. Louis XIV, the “sun king,” died right after an eclipse blackened the skies over Paris. Over in North America, Chippewa Indians shot flaming arrows at the darkened sun, hoping to reignite the life-giving orb. One scientist observing the 1871 eclipse in India felt compelled to retreat to his room and plunge his head into water.
Shakespeare wrote that an eclipse was a “stain on the sun that portended no good.” The spooky light of an eclipse brought to Milton’s mind the tarnished glow of the fallen Lucifer. Some ancient stories tell us the sun gets eaten during an eclipse.
It is no stretch to see how the English word eclipse derives from the Greek word for abandonment.
An Earthly solar eclipse is a mighty strange affair. It can only happen because our very own star, the sun, which has a diameter about 400 times larger than our moon, lies roughly 400 times further away from it. About a hundred million miles away if you’re counting. Both disks thus appear as the same size, allowing the moon, at certain times from certain locations, to block out the sun. In all the hundreds of billions of star systems in our Milky Way galaxy, solar eclipses are exceedingly unlikely. Anyone seeking evidence for Intelligent Design behind our planet’s existence could stop right there.
Our fascination with the solar eclipse could also have something to do with it being a classic underdog yarn. David and Goliath; beefy sun and puny moon. The little guy gets to kick butt on the big guy, obliterating him – if only for a minute or two.
Our insignificance in the immensity of the cosmos brings me comfort, not despair. I realize that’s not wholly rational. Humility, prompted by such reflection, I hold to be one of the cardinal virtues. I can recall astronomer Carl Sagan telling us in his gosh-o-mighty voice that there are more stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy than there are grains of sand on Earth. Take a moment to absorb that; then remember that countless galaxies extend beyond ours in all directions.
So it’s nice that our very own sun and moon, which, let’s be honest, we usually take for granted way up there in the sky, get special attention once in a while. The love they got this week was deemed the Great American Eclipse (“great” being an overused adjective in our land of late).
Some Yankee chest-puffing is permitted however, since this is the first solar eclipse visible in no country except for the U.S. An eclipse hasn’t spanned the U.S. since 1918. A total eclipse last visited us on Feb. 26, 1979, but that one only grazed the Northwest corner before swinging into western Canada. We have now entered a 38-year phase in which Americans, those of us still alive anyway, will have a chance to remain stateside and see four more (2024, 2044, 2045 and 2052).
The eclipse’s dark shadow – the 195-mile-wide “totality” ribbon – rushes across our planet’s surface at 1,800 miles per hour. I saw it for 90 seconds and then it was on its way east. My brother Dennis saw the eclipse on the opposite side of our continent, in Greenville, South Carolina, 85 minutes after it abandoned us in central Oregon.
I can’t imagine a better eclipse vantage-point than ours at Fish Lake in west-central Oregon. We parked our camp chairs on a shelf of black, pocked lava that overlooked a large grassy bowl. Fish Lake is a natural wonder in its own right. The grassy expanse, which resembled a young wheat crop, grows in a lakebed that fills up with water in winter and spring, and then goes dry and turns into a meadow this time of year. Its fish residents retreat to an adjacent creek and return when the lake fills up again. A volcanic eruption formed the lake 3,000 years ago.
Let the eclipse begin. We arrived two hours early. The sky was cloudless with a slight haze. The chilly air became warmed by the rising but soon-to-disappear sun. The haze had mostly dispersed by the time the eclipse started a little after nine o’clock. The magic began with a thin fingernail of the moon’s shadow cutting into the upper right of the sun’s edge. The temperature noticeably dropped and the air took on an eerie blue-grey cast. Totality arrived an hour later. During its 90 or so seconds we were able to dispense with the sun-viewing glasses and look directly at the corona – the boiling, lightning-like plasma around the sun – now spilling around the edge of the moon.
The early-morning pre-eclipse scene had a vaguely Stonehengian feel, what with the ancient lava flow and the grass-covered lake and perhaps 300 people sitting or standing and peering east, some with blankets pulled around shoulders, many holding strange devices over their eyes. Our fellow viewers, mostly locals, represented all ages. There were more children than dogs, but lots of both. Five minutes before totality a young bearded dark-haired man, carried away by the spirit of the occasion or some other substance, stripped and streaked across the lake floor to the rise on the other side, took a minute to catch his breath, then streaked back to his friends below us. The crowd cheered and clapped as if he were a halfback racing for the game-winning touchdown. The atmosphere was communal; I’m reluctant to say Woodstock-like, but there, I said it.
After the roughly 90 seconds of totality, the sun’s upper right edge started flashing with expanding light as the moon retreated. We had to put our solar glasses back on.
And then it was over. We sat there absorbing what we had just seen and viewing the people now collecting their things on the lakebed. We all started to make our way home, wherever that was. Some of us were reflecting on what tiny specks of life-form we are, scurrying across the thin surface of a rock that rotates around its sun as the whole kit and caboodle flies through the cosmos. Our brief possession of a life-force is what we most have in common. During fraught periods of human activity it may take the spectacle of a cosmic event like an eclipse to remind us of that.
Don’t miss a thing. Subscribe to Duane’s blog and posts will be delivered to your inbox. Just click on “Email” in the upper right (under the “Stage Door” image) and follow the simple instructions. Only takes a few seconds. You’ll then get a confirmation email.