There’s a lot from today I could write about and I’ll endeavour to do so at some point before this trip is up. There’s the story of what happened when a tiny American town found itself the subject of an invasion by tens of thousands of eclipse watchers. The tale of how a rural shopping mart, who previously got excited when they got visitors from a city fifty miles way, coped with people from as far afield as Britain, France and South Africa. Or there’s the battle between the enterprising locals to make as much money as possible from the event. It has, however, been a long day. I was up at 4am local time and it’s just gone midnight on the same time zone, although my 367-mile drive to Arkansas down the most truck-infested interstate I’ve ever seen has gained me an hour back. Of sorts. I’m now im the central time zone.
I can’t go to bed though without at least trying to describe the eclipse itself. So I will try.
I’ll start by saying I was not prepared for this. I do not mean in a sense of getting to Place A by Time B, but in terms of the impact that the eclipse itself had on me. I, along with most of those around me, were physical wrecks after the two-and-a-half minutes of totality were up. It took me a good fifteen minutes to finally stop shaking and a further three hours of driving to actually get my head straight. I knew exactly what was going to happen, how it was happening and when. But the event itself was like being hit by a train. I honestly had no idea.
I’ll start by saying this: If you ever, in your lifetime, get the chance to witness a total solar eclipse then do it. Just do it. It doesn’t matter if you have to take an international flight, or book a week off work, or sell some of your possessions. Whatever you have to do to get there and see it – make it happen. You will not regret it.
The thing you have to remember about the eclipse itself is that, with the exception of the brief period of totality, the sun in the sky looks like it always does. I’ll say that again: It looks like it always does. I think this is something that is commonly misconstrued, maybe because of those wonderful NASA images that show the moon moving so clearly across the face of the sun. If I were to take you now and plonk you down in the field I was in earlier today on the edge of Spring City, Tennessee, at the point when the sun was 90% obscured, you’d have no idea that was the case. The sun would look like, well, the sun. It’d only be if I let you glipse through the magical eclipse glasses that you’d see (on a tiny-sized version of that NASA image) that there was only a small crescent of the sun left.
The eclipse lasted three hours in total. Two-and-a-half minutes of totality in the middle and then an hour-and-a-half of transition either side of that. For the first hour of the eclipse nothing much happened. It was a very hot day (over 100F) and a cloudless sky so the only effect you could notice in that first hour was that maybe you weren’t burning as quickly as you were previously. Obviously, if you looked up through the eclipse glasses you could see that the sun was slowly being eaten up by an ever-advancing moon. Such is the power contained in the sun that it can get to having almost two-thirds of it obscured with very little effect.
Around about an hour in things started going a bit strange. While the sun did not change visually in the sky it’s intensity started dropping off. The best thing I can liken it to is if you compare what the sun feels like on your skin on a hot July day to how it feels on a clear December morning. Over the space of about ten minutes the sun walked backwards through the seasons from July to December and the temperature fell off a cliff. From the hour to the hour-and-a-half point the temperature dropped from 100F to 67F. It was quite something.
So at the hour-and-fifteen mark we were in a situation where the day has been transformed from a high-summer afternoon scorcher to a crisp winter morning. At this point the wildlife had starting waking up as well. The first thing to start going wete the cockerels followed by the songbirds and crickets. Between the hour-fifteen and hour-thirty mark we went through a rapid twilight until it’s basically a bright dusk. At this point there was only the tiniest of slithers of sun left (through the eclipse glasses) but the sun still looked as normal in the sky. So far:as expected.
And then it happened.
As that last slither of sun disappeared it was like someone had turned off a light switch. In a split second the sky went from bright twilight to night. Just like that. The star field appeared and the street lights came on.
And the sun was gone.
In its place was a black disc, conjured out of nowhere, surrounded by…well, it’s difficult to describe, it really is. I always thought the sun’s corona would be a yellowy-orange colour but I was wrong. It was bright sliver in colour while managing to be actually shiny and glinting, as if encrusted with diamonds. I’ve never seen anything like it in nature before. The colour and effect was staggering. It was incredibly beautiful, but also incredibly ominous. You’ve gone from what looks like a normal sky and sun one second to darkness with what-looks-like a hole where the sun should be the next. The rapidity and magnitude of the change melts your mind. It doesn’t make any sense – it’s not possible for the sky to change that quickly and to that extent.
In the millions of videos that’ll no-doubt be posted online of the moment of totality I can guarantee you that in every single one there’ll be gasps, shouting, clapping and screams at that moment. This is not because the eclipse happened in America but simply because the experience is so intense.
If the above isn’t enough, you then have to cope with the fact that you have a three-hundred-and-sixty degree sunrise going on. Because the shadow of the moon is only seventy miles across you can see the light over the horizon outside of the shadow on all around you. So every horizon is a orangey-purple colour, but a colour that is constantly changing in its nature as the shadow moves.
As the period of totality came to an end a tiny pin-prick of light on one side of the corona started shining brightly sliver – think like the stone on an engagement ring – and then suddenly we were back in the room. Night was gone, the black disc had vanished and the sun looked like it always did in the sky. It was as if nothing had happened.
At this point everyone started looking around at everyone else. Was it all a dream?
A fair few people who had been standing up were now sitting down and the majority of the people there were in tears. This may seem a bit weird to you reading this on the train (or wherever it is you read this) but the moment of totality is a ‘does not compute’ moment for your brain. It can’t cope. Every day of your life you’ve grown to understand that things to do with the sun, moon and sky happen slowly. On a clear night you can watch the moon gradually make its way across the sky or you can spend a summer evening watching the sun slowly sink down below the horizon in a blaze of red. To go from ‘normal day’ to, well, a black disc, sliver ring, star field and purple horizon in a click of the fingers knocks you for six. And then some.
I can see why entire religions, indeed civilisations, were founded and maintained on the back of solar eclipses. The power and majesty of it is completely overwhelming – and that’s for someone who understands what’s going on.
I know what I’ll be dreaming about tonight…