Eclipse Eclipse Eclipse_But Wait

Eclipse! Eclipse! Eclipse!

But Wait.

Andrew Jendrzejewski, August 21, 2017, The moon approaches total solar eclipse. Photograph of a projected image from my 2.5″ refractor telescope that I bought after saving my weekly allowance in seventh grade.

Annie Dillard, my favorite writer about nature, beautifully described a total eclipse that she witnessed as distressing and ominous.  It reminded me of an experience I had after my mother read the Chicken Little story to me when I was preschool age.  I  saw the clouds streaming past in the wind. I ran all the way home crying because I thought the sky was falling.

Ancient peoples thought that a dragon was eating the sun during a total eclipse. They panicked and thought they would soon perish.   Even now we give names to major storms.   We animate hurricanes, tornados, and floods because of their power over us.  According to the Kingston Trio, “They call the wind Maria”!  I think this is all about realizing that in these natural events we experience something bigger than ourselves, something cosmic or powerful. It can fill us with fear, awe, or dread.

Once in a while, when I make art, I find a combination of colors, a pattern, a space even, that can give me a sense of awe or of finding a key that unlocks an insight.  It is not very often, but when it happens, like the eclipse, it is memorable.

Seeing the total eclipse moved me as if I were discovering one of those keys after waiting for the opportunity for over a half century.  I experienced a response similar in intensity to what Annie Dillard described, but in a different way. It was incredible. I was full of wonder.

There was a gentle darkening for about 40 minutes as the black disc-like profile of the moon slowly, like an hour hand, moved across the face of the sun transforming its round shape into a crescent. The landscape gradually dimmed, at first almost imperceptibly. As the moon hid half the sun, the light seemed muted, as if by a gray polarized lens.  It was as if I could see the world with a different clarity.

ASV’s Andy and Amy witnessing the August 21st Ttotal eEclipse in Providence, KY. (Still from a mobile phone video mounted on a tripod.)

We followed the progress of the moon across the sun with the telescope I bought with my saved allowance and odd jobs as a 7th grader almost 60 years ago.  It came with a sun filter for an eyepiece (no longer recommended for safety reasons), and a screen onto which I projected the image of the sun.   The old lenses had poorer resolution than when they were new, but we could see several groups of sunspots and a sharp horizon of both the sun and the moon. The tripod mount was not as stable as would be found on a more expensive telescope, so the adjustment knobs and the wind tended to exaggerate vibrations of the image. Photographing the projection with any degree of higher quality was impossible.

We were in the entrance of a long drive that led along the edge of a soybean field in the country, just outside the little mining community of Providence, KY, reasonably close to the very center of the eclipse zone. The town’s name seemed like an apt metaphor for the experience.

About five minutes to totality we sensed that nature around us was settling in for the night, despite the disruptive racket of vehicles that occasionally passed us. The moon’s movement seemed to speed up toward completion. The sky began to darken above us, and the air cooled noticeably from the earlier 93 degrees to something much more comfortable. Clouds in the distance remained bright except for the NW where they remained darkened by the moon’s shadow. In the north, we saw a beautiful pinkish orange against a bright blue sky, as if the sun were setting.  At the instant of totality the sky turned, not black, but a deep cobalt blue that had a crystalline clarity about it.  Jupiter (or was it Venus) brightly shone above us, but I did not see other stars.

Still from Nightline, ABC News video

Birds seemed to settle in for the night with nighttime noises. Crickets began to chirp softly.  I perceived a gentle feeling, like being in a Fra Angelico painting, rather than approaching the Dante-like Inferno of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment that Annie Dillard might have felt. There was something sweet about being in the country with the creatures.  At totality, not being able to find the sun with the telescope, we savored the jet-black disc with a diamond white ring of fire lining its circular contour with our naked eyes. Two lobes of light radiated downward on each side, and two others shot upward on each side, to make a pointed-winged butterfly shape of the corona (the crown of light flashing outward from the sun behind the moon). The entire spectacle seemed beautifully bejeweled as if to look into the eye of a god. I was filled with awe and thankfulness, but before I could even process what I was seeing, a bright flame pushed out from behind the moon, making the eclipse look like a diamond ring. Then we had to turn our eyes away. Instantly it became merely memory as if years had passed.

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