We saw it at the moment it happened, at exactly the time and place it had been predicted. Endless online articles and video reports had told us what we were going to see. It was a communal event, informed by the avalanche of data and science streaming at us on our cell phones. We all gathered at the appointed time, as if going to a concert or a festival. And yet…
Nothing we’d read, none of the research we’d done, no stories from eclipses past, had prepared us for what we were about to witness. It’s true what they say: a partial eclipse – even 90+% – has nothing whatsoever to do with a total eclipse. A partial eclipse is only evident if you look through solar glasses and see the moon eating into the perfect sphere of the sun, or perhaps see the refracted shape of the sun as it shines through leaves and is cast on the ground. In a partial eclipse, the world looks and feels the same as always: sunshine, warmth, daytime proceeding as usual. In other words, normal. But what we saw was profoundly abnormal.
I imagine we felt the same thing ancient peoples must have felt when they witnessed an eclipse 7000 years ago: something primal and “other”. In the few minutes just before the moon totally eclipsed the sun, the world changed in the most fundamental way. The temperature dropped 15 degrees; the wind picked up; birds that had spent the morning fishing on the river roosted; the great blues lined up on the river’s edge, the osprey flew back to their enormous nest; crickets started chirping. I can’t convey in words the strangeness of those moments prior to totality. The sun still shone, casting sharp shadows on the ground, but it was dim. The western sky got dark, like just before a thunderstorm, but the sky was clear. The horizon took on a sunset glow, but it wasn’t sunset – it was 1:30 in the afternoon. The color of the light wasn’t warm – it was cool, violet. The air took on substance and volume. And then it happened – darkness swept over us in an instant. Nature stormed into our presence, asserting itself, overwhelming the interior noise in our heads, putting on a show to beat all shows. You could hear gasps and exclamations at the moment the sky went dark, and then silence. The sky went as black as blue can be. The sun transformed into an intense bracelet of the purest light around the moon, bigger than I expected. I stared awestruck and slack-jawed. We all beheld an indescribable and inexplicable beauty.
My rational analytical side knew exactly what was going to happen, and why. But there are hard-wired ancient memories living within us and instincts that remain from our evolutionary ancestors; these things triggered a deep pit-of-the-stomach physical sensation telling us that something wasn’t right, even as we marveled at what we saw. There is night in the day. So wrong, yet so beautiful. It’s not often we get to experience something so profound as this. It’s liberating, purifying, and humbling to be in that space – even if only for a couple minutes. We’re already planning for 2024.
Barkley Dam, Kuttawa, Kentucky 1:36pm August 21, 2017
Totality lasted only 2 minutes 38 seconds:
Barkley Dam, Kuttawa, Kentucky 1:37pm August 21, 2017
13 minutes prior to totality:
Barkley Dam, Kuttawa, Kentucky 1:23pm August 21, 2017