Witnessing a Total Solar Eclipse

Moments before a total eclipse.

Moments before a total eclipse.

Friends of mine are down in Chile right now, witnessing a beautiful total eclipse of the sun. It made me want to share something I wrote the day I saw one myself, in 2017.

Baskett Slough Wildlife Refuge, just above Dallas, Oregon, is a beautiful rise of long, golden grass and green trees, with views for dozens of miles in every direction. It felt special to hike up there this morning, away from any crowds, from the nearby town, from humanity. I'm here for a total solar eclipse, something I hoped to see at some point in my life... but figured I would have to travel to some remote corner of the globe, not simply roll out of a guestroom bed at the home of friends who live close to the center line of totality.

It has been a risk. Most of the people I know are many hours east in Madras, Oregon, where the weather forecast was better. It was a gamble to be this close to the Pacific coast and the possible morning fog. But I wanted to be with my friends, and it has worked out - there are no clouds at all in the sky, and the smoke from distant forest fires is far to the east - in fact, affecting Madras more than here.

I sit, and I look.

It is initially eerie how normal everything looks. Without eclipse glasses, I see a bright, sunny day and green, rolling distant forested hills. And yet, the world is changing. The light is gradually leaving the world. It's as if the brightness on a TV screen was being turned down very gradually - it is a sunny day but the colors are dimmer, losing sharpness. It is not the dimness of cloud, or sunrise, or evening. This is something else. Something odd, and not experienced by me ever before. It reminds me of light through a forest fire - when the sun is high in the sky but the light is the deep orange of sunset. It seems - wrong. The sun is shining brightly, but it is somehow weakening. It isn't the silver of dawn or the orange of sunset. This feels calm, peaceful, reassuring, and yet supernatural.

Cold wisps of air hit my back. It was hot earlier in the day, but now the air is cooling. The sky directly above is a weird blue-black - profoundly out of place with the sun high in the sky, but somehow not foreboding, just different from anything else I have even seen.

It steadily grows darker. Trees and people close by me begin to look as if they are in a dark barn and someone has cracked open the door a little. They are lit up, but they don't appear to be outside anymore.

And then, rapidly, darker. People turn to look towards the coast, where we know an enormous shadow must be rushing towards us at supersonic speeds.

The sun is shining, but it is now high up in a deep indigo sky, as bright as if someone was shining a flashlight during the daytime - you wouldn't want to look directly at it, but you would not feel blinded either. Distant hills begin to fade into darkness. A few dozen miles to the north and south the sun is still shining on the land, and I can see a strip of smoky orange sky, like a sunset after a storm out in the ocean, far away. I am glad I am not there. I am glad I am here.

I've seen three space shuttle launches in my life. Each time, towards the end of the countdown I did not allow myself to hope too much, because I have seen them be scrubbed at the last moment. I realize now that this is different. There are no clouds. There is no way I am not going to see a total solar eclipse. My eyes well up. This is going to happen, any moment. It is unstoppable.

The beam of white light from the dark sky loses intensity and then - boom. The sky is black. I can see planets. And - the moon and sun. To say they look like the many eclipse photos I have seen is true. And yet, it is SO different to see the actual light in my own eyes. There is a perfect, silvery, celestial circle hanging in the sky. And a clarity I had not anticipated. The solar corona - the aura of plasma streaming from the sun - is incredibly detailed. It reaches from the sun in large arrow-like shapes. I am reminded of looking at the detail of a fragile feather close up - the lines, the delicate structure, and the same sense of order, of form. I know that I am seeing something that I could only see from space, or at this special, fleeting moment on earth. I'm being given a glimpse of the workings of stars, as if I had been transported to somewhere else in the universe. And yet I am standing on a hill of golden grass, looking up to a gleaming, silvery halo. This can't be real, but it is.

I take a quick photo with my cellphone. I know it won't truly show anything I am seeing. I know professionals in the valleys below will capture the literal image of what I am seeing, but it still won't capture - this.

A series of little red dots, like the brake lights of cars on a distant hill, appear on one edge of the moon. It is odd to see such a color next to the silver. I learn later that these are solar flares coming into view on the very edge of the sun. The total eclipse is almost over.

Then, the floodlight is back, gleaming over the other side of the moon from where it had vanished. It is beautiful, in a perfect composition with the silvery orb. Yet it is also sad. I know this means the end of the total eclipse. The world around me begins to brighten again.

I'd read descriptions of total eclipses going back thousands of years. Many of them told of a feeling of dread, of foreboding. I did not feel that at all. I felt a sense of sheer emotional joy. Like a perfect celestial photo from a telescope appearing to my eyes at the top of a sunny hill on earth. It was transcendental in a way I don't think I can ever describe.

I cried a little afterwards, standing there in the golden grass as the world went back to how it had been. I'm not ashamed of that. Frankly, it would have felt inappropriate not to.

My cell phone image of the eclipse, which comes nowhere near replicating the personal experience.

My cell phone image of the eclipse, which comes nowhere near replicating the personal experience.