So what was the big deal? Earth goes around sun, moon goes around earth, sometimes the moon gets between and casts a shadow, and there you have it…But no. For many people, the event takes on bucket list status. A total eclipse of the sun is rare enough for us—the last one to cross the United States occurred in 1918. Partials, common enough, generate some excitement but cannot compare to the drama of totality. The puzzle remains: What is so emotionally riveting about a total eclipse of the sun?
We use words, an inadequacy when describing those things to us most (insert adjective: wonderful, amazing, beautiful, meaningful.) Shakespeare could turn a phrase, and Dostoevsky. Marcus Aurelius said, “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” Nicely done. But the actual experience of almost anything cannot be put into words by definition. Wordsworth comes close: “My heart leaps up when I behold/A rainbow in the sky.” Yes, mine too. What fails is the literal/figurative divide between what those words mean and the sensation of joy at the beauty I see.
Facts, the things we think we can rely on when words fail, don’t help much in this quest. Each eclipse is unique. Different parts of the world are touched, angles create different scenarios, and the same phenomena do not occur at every event. Times can vary widely, and the weather can interfere. Someone we heard from today reported rain with thunder and lightning which cleared enough to see the totality. The science contains so many variables, in other words, that it’s impossible to say “This is what you will see.”
Emotions flowed at the eclipse. Grown men wept or exclaimed in exultation or both. The couple next to us kissed. A collective gasp was followed by applause. The musicians were silent. Throughout the day in preparation and afterward as we compared notes, a sense of community was palpable. Some said the eclipse was good for the country. We agreed. And then we left. Mission accomplished, in a way.
Still, what was it like? The flash as the edge of the moon’s uneven surface covers the sun’s light creates a diamond ring effect. Before that moment, however, without special glasses or without noticing the patterns of the moon’s shadow through leaves, it would be possible not to know that anything special is happening. Suddenly, the sun is gone. The entire horizon looks as if the sun had set, not just a glow in the west. Venus appears, bright as in the night sky. Birds stop singing. Simply put, it is like nothing else. For those few seconds, we can see something that places us in a spot on a world in a solar system that circles about in a galaxy that we usually cannot imagine the workings of, much less our running with its stars. We can throw our imaginations out past Jupiter, with no large effort, but to stand in witness of a mere shadow darkening that sun which gives us life, that is something to see indeed, with or without the words to do it justice.