Seven Ways of Looking at an Eclipse
When the sun rises in Hawaii on Monday morning, the Great American Eclipse will commence. An hour later, a moonshadow 70 miles wide will make landfall north of Newport, Oregon, and race across the continent at half a mile per second before skimming out onto the Atlantic off the coast of Charleston. Soon after it will darken the decks of the MS Oasis of the Seas, where upwards of 6,000 vacationers will be drinking moon pies and “cosmic cosmos” on the Total Eclipse Cruise. “What better way to celebrate this unprecedented moment in history than at sea?” Royal Caribbean President Michael Bayley asks readers of the current issue of American Airlines’ in-flight magazine.
“Unprecedented” is a bit rich. After all, the planet receives at least two solar eclipses per year, and, on average, two total solar eclipses every three. We are to think this one special because, as is often noted, the path of totality is cutting across the entire continental United States for the time in 99 years. Some outlets are labeling Monday’s the first of its kind since 1776, discrediting the 1918 eclipse for nicking the Bahamas (and ignoring that most of the continent was not the United States in 1776). This one will be completely, and only, ours. Such silliness only underscores that eclipses are social and cultural phenomena as much as they are celestial.
You have no shortage of places to turn for rundowns of the eclipse’s chronology and geography, for primers on eyewear and camera tips, for descriptors of what to expect from birds and squirrels and spiders. But what can you expect from people?
Seven members of our editorial board are here to help answer that question.
Choose Your Own Cosmology
Human history teems with solar eclipse mythologies. In the Jewish Talmud, the solar eclipse is an omen of impending punishment. In Chinese astronomy, the sun disappears because it is scarfed up by a dragon. Among these, however, the most politically influential is Christian millenarianism—which, in its contemporary form, iteratively links each solar eclipse with the end of the world. Indeed, for many evangelical millenarians, the promise of a post-apocalyptic life in heaven is as certain as God’s invitation to “fill the earth and subdue it.” And because the end times are always just around the corner, this belief system offers an ecological doctrine of domination, on the kind of abridged timescale that fits nicely with late-stage capitalism.
As alternate forms of meaning-making, astronomy and meteorology offer a different vision of the solar eclipse. Here, the occlusion of the sun is a surprisingly banal matter—indeed, it is one of Earth’s few natural phenomena which remain unthreatened by global climate change. In the era of record-breaking heat waves and collapsing ice shelves, perhaps it is time to rethink the cosmological significance of this cosmic event. What kind of meaning-making—across political, social, and physical distances—do we need in order to recognize the real signs of a climactic apocalypse? And how can we galvanize our fellow eclipse-lovers to participate in the kind of dramatic, impactful action necessary on a rapidly heating planet? Stepha Velednitsky
Let Your Children’s Egos Run Wild
Solar eclipses like the ones on Earth must be rare across the universe. How many planets have their star blocked by a moon that just happens to appear to be the same size as that star? And of those, how many have intelligent life that can appreciate it? With such long odds, one might be inclined to think himself special should the maximum point of eclipse fall over his hometown—especially if he’s 12.
On May 10, 1994, an annular solar eclipse centered on tiny Wauseon, Ohio (where, my pre-teen self would have assured you, nothing cool had ever happened before). Because the point of maximum eclipse was in a cornfield about a mile from our school and for some reason the farmer would not sacrifice his crop for science, all the professional astronomers and official NASA observers set up their telescopes on our school’s football field. Today, I remember the excitement of the event better than the eclipse. But later this month, as I drive 461 miles to southern Illinois to see my first total eclipse, I will remember fondly the one time a solar eclipse came to me. Adam Behrman
Check Your Star Sign, Remember Your Antiperspirant
As the 2017 total solar eclipse approaches I cannot help but think back to the formative moments of my adolescence when I first discovered the mystical powers of the planets. When I was sixteen, a friend and I would crawl into the suffocating, humid attic of her dad’s townhome and pour over whatever cheap astrology paperback we could come by. What I hold onto from these sweaty ventures into the occult has little to do with what these books revealed to me about my personality or likelihood of making it with another Libra. Instead, I remember the glittering and kaleidoscopic covers of these books. Their bent paper covers promised worlds more magical and expansive than the ascetic and guilt-ridden Southern Baptist tradition I was raised in.
But there were some circular and strange injunctions in these westernized astrological guides as well. In addition to symbolizing both beginnings and endings (and everything in between), solar eclipses are routinely considered bad omens for pregnant women. Despite their contradictions, those drugstore zodiac guides gave me new ways of seeing the stars. They taught me how looking at the sun might invite us to think about others who have done the same, or remind us how enmeshed we are with the sweaty bodies within our immediate orbit, human and non-human bodies alike. Sara Thomas
Pack Your Gear and Map Your Kin
The interesting thing about packing for the eclipse is that the closer you get to the event itself, the less stuff you need. The morning of the eclipse, we’ll haul out our camp chairs, a snack, and some water. Then there’s the telescope with its sun filter—special-ordered to fit the lens—that we’ll be using in the minutes approaching totality. But once the moon fully covers the sun, we’ll set that aside, in favor of a dinky pair of eclipse glasses. After two minutes and 36 seconds of totality, the arc of the sun will expand as the moon passes on, and then, it’s everything in reverse order: glasses, telescope, and then sitting, waiting to all the places we came from. We might pack some toilet paper and emergency food, too, just in case we get stuck on a clogged country road somewhere in Missouri.
Whether you plan to stand in a field, a roadside, or city block, those of us chasing the path of totality will be part of one of the largest domestic migrations in American history. In one slow-motion wave lasting an hour and 33 minutes, we’ll all look up, and train our eyes at the same thing. And because nearly everyone I know plans to do the same, the geography and the timing of the eclipse is also a map of personal connections. Nine minutes after I see the eclipse, the shadow will visit my 93-year-old grandmother, and two minutes after that, my one-year-old nephew. A middle-school friend will stand on the coast in South Carolina to watch the shadow cross the horizon. Consequently, the last thing an attentive eclipse-packer must bring is a good sense of where their friends and family plan to be. It’s this constellation of human relationships stretching across the event that helps me, at least, situate the eclipse in a world of meaning. On Monday the 21st at 1:14:19 C.D.T. in the afternoon, looking up through telescopes, cameras, and glasses, I wonder if I will find myself thinking I’m looking in the wrong direction? Kate Wersan
Stock Up on Turmeric
Eclipses are, by definition, astronomical occurrences. But I remember the October 24, 1995 solar eclipse in my hometown of Kolkata, India, as a thoroughly domestic event. My parents and elder brother explained the phenomenon to me using a torch and cricket and ping pong balls. We heard reports that the cardboard UV-filter glasses sold in stores were useless fakes, so my father stirred turmeric and water together in a large tub, and we could watch the sun’s reflection on the mixture’s surface. We gathered on the rooftop garden of our house and from there, as the sky started to darken, we could watch birds hurry back to their shelter and listen to dogs howl. We heard conch shells, blown by our neighbors to protect their homes from bad omens—a practice rooted in the Hindu tradition that holds the demon Rahu swallows the sun to cause eclipses. The sounding of these shell trumpets scored anxious minutes for domestic life: some forbid cooking until the sunshine returns; some believe pregnant women must not pee. Though the sun and moon begged attention to the cosmos, what I remember most is what happened within our homes. Oindrila Chattopadhyay
Eclipses might be the natural world’s least mysterious wonder. They are routine, mechanical. Our interest depends mostly on their periodicity. Reversing what Emerson said of the night sky, we would grow bored if we saw more of them. Indeed, to find them unsurprising has been a badge of intellectual superiority. “There is probably no more forcible illustration of the axiom that knowledge is power than the attitudes of savage and scientist toward the phenomena of the total solar eclipse,” reads a story in a Monmouth, Illinois newspaper shortly after the New Year’s Day eclipse in 1889. The learned take in the spectacle calmly; the ignorant lose their minds. So it is in the story of Christopher Columbus hoodwinking the Arawak into believing an eclipse to be the work of his angry God, or Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee deploying his nineteenth-century schooling to spook a sixth-century king out of executing him. So, on Monday, the children of the Enlightenment will step out to take in the visceral pleasures of what is, thanks to uncontested science, widely considered a predictable, unthreatening display. And yet, the event is not merely one of orbital mechanics, but of human actions, too, and thus stubbornly unpredictable. So forests may burn, snakes may attack, people may go blind. Stay safe out there. Brian Hamilton
How to Not See a Solar Eclipse
The title of our post today riffs on a Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” in which the speaker can never really see the bird in question. One looks at a blackbird through a fragmented filter of experience and sensation, hears its whistle, senses the shadow of its wings, perhaps reads it as an omen. But like an eclipse, one cannot see it directly. Although the poem is often read as an anthropocentric meditation on human experience, I’ve always read Stevens’ deep respect for how entwined we humans and our meaning making are with the more-than-human worlds. The blackbird, the speaker tells us, “is involved / In what I know.”
During the first eclipse I witnessed as a child, I took seriously the advice to not gaze at it. I stared at my shoes. Yet I vividly recall the terrifying excitement of waiting for the moon to pass in front of the sun, for the day to darken, for the world to turn inside out. I remember the eerie midday twilight when “it was evening all afternoon” and a few breathless moments in which the everyday upended and anything could happen.
Since that first experience, a solar eclipse has been “involved / In what I know”—not about astronomy but about hope. Anticipating the upcoming event, I return to that sense of possibility. I conjure up Stephen King’s character Dolores Claiborne, her hair aglow against the fiery eclipse as she refuses to help her violent, abusive husband up from the old well he’s drunkenly fallen through. I imagine Nat Turner looking up to the wayward moon in 1831 and finding there a sign of freedom and rebellion. I imagine you there, too, imagining the alternative realities an eclipse inspires us to envision—all the ways these social and political worlds of ours could be made otherwise. Addie Hopes
Featured image: William Jennings Bryan in Washington, D.C., looks through blackened glass at a solar eclipse. Bryan compared the eclipse to the Democrats’ defeat in the previous November’s presidential election, saying both were “only temporary, for the sun will come out again.” Photo by Harris & Ewing, January 25, 1925.