Witnessing the solar eclipse within the path of totality was a singular experience, incomparable to anything I have ever known. I drove from San Francisco to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to share the celestial moment with my sister and her family. The 915-mile journey was worth every minute, mile, and drop of gas.
It’s difficult to describe the power of the experience, since there is nothing remotely like it. I had seen an 80% eclipse before. It was neat, but it didn’t make a lasting impression. This was different. Ninety-nine percent and Totality are as different as… well, night and day. The former is interesting; the latter, transformational.
Atop a grassy hill, we gazed at the sun through our eclipse glasses as the moon crept slowly across its face, dimming its light, cooling the air, and upending the familiar order of things. For more than two minutes, the laws of nature seemed suspended, the midday temperature having dropped nearly 20 degrees, the frogs croaking and crickets chirping as if it were nighttime, and my three-year-old nephew suggesting a nap might be in order at 11am (a most unnatural phenomenon, to be sure!)
The infinite sky seemed to become a dome, with the sun overlaid by the moon at the zenith, and dawn breaking in every direction, a 360-degree sunrise, but with the sun already high in the sky. Venus peaked out through the darkness near the sun/moon, gracing us with her beauty — the only star in the sky. The corona stretched out from the sun like blue-silver solar mist against a cobalt backdrop.
I became intimately aware of the gears of the Cosmic Clock — that we live on a marble spinning through space, held elegantly in place through forces of gravity and magic, perfectly balanced among an infinite number of other heavenly spheres. It was inspiring and profound, reminding me of the awesome vastness of the universe and humanity’s ever-expanding potential to know it. It seemed that if I listened closely enough I could hear the Universe hum.
Images of ancient people flashed across the screen of my mind, hunters and gatherers could not predict such an event. To them the eclipse could be nothing other than an act of the gods, a humbling and terrifying judgment from Heaven. As Shakespeare wrote in MacBeth, describing nature gone awry:
Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threaten his bloody stage: by the clock ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.
Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb,
When living light should kiss it?
— and the came the Eclipse of Thales!
If Herodotus is to be believed, Thales of Miletus, the original Greek philosopher gave the first accurate prediction of a solar eclipse, plugging humanity more firmly into the Cosmic Clock. Mythology gave way to geometry, astrology to astronomy, and humanity would never be the same again.
Our lives are fleeting. The world will see countless solar eclipses. Any human being will only see a few, if any at all. The eclipse reminded me of the preciousness of life and our short time here on this magnificent planet. Most of our strife is unnecessary, born from habit and pretense of separation. Our divisions and differences are imaginary, and we give those imaginings disproportionate attention. We are one human family, one singular life form, under the Vault of Heaven.
The next solar eclipse will be viewable from Chile and Argentina on July 2, 2019 and I will be there.