A look at the bright side of solar eclipses
By Maria Johnson
His answer was so Gen Z.
When I texted our younger son to ask what it was like to witness October’s solar eclipse in Oregon, he responded with a photo of him crouching and pointing, mouth agape, to the cloudy sky.
His picture, a nod to a popular meme, was a joke. Under Oregon’s seemingly forever overcast dome, he couldn’t see squat. And even though he was in the swath where the moon’s shadow would be the darkest, the skies didn’t seem much dimmer than usual.
Here on the East Coast, we understood from news reports the shade would be almost imperceptible, but the main event should be visible. Technically called an annular eclipse, as opposed to a total eclipse, the moon would glide between us and the sun, appearing to punch a hole in ol’ Sol and making our life-giving star look like a ring of fire for a few minutes.
To get a good look we’d probably need a solar-filtered telescope, so our plan was to drive to Guilford Technical Community College’s Jamestown campus and take a gander through the lenses set up in a parking lot under the guidance of Tom English, director of the school’s Cline Observatory.
In case you don’t know, one of the coolest things about living here is that you can stargaze, for free, through the observatory’s big telescope on most Friday nights with Tom and friends.
The sights — magnified to nearly 200 times what the unaided eye can see — range from close-ups of the Earth’s moon to planets such as Jupiter and Saturn, to the Andromeda galaxy. For big sky doings, like solar eclipses, the observatory folks set up smaller telescopes in open areas. Alas, the October eclipse was mostly a bust here, too. Clouds and rain obscured the view. But on another gloomy day, we got luckier.
It was a little more than six years ago, August 21, 2017, when my husband and I drove to the mountain town of Brevard to experience a total eclipse — one where the moon is so close to the earth it blots out the sun entirely in the same way holding up your hand to block the sun works better if your hand is closer to your face.
It was a Monday. The workday was going to be relatively slow and we were empty-nesters, so why settle for mere dimness in Greensboro when we could drive three hours and be plunged into total darkness at midday? Sounded like a good time. And it was.
Brevard, known for its small liberal-arts college and a world-class summer music festival, was giddy that day. People lined up for free solar-viewing glasses (limit one per person). Some businesses hawked eclipse merch.
We bought two gray T-shirts at the office of the local newspaper. One of its designers had come up with a brilliant graphic — a flaming ring of white, representing the sun’s corona, anchored by a white squirrel, the town’s mascot, sitting at the bottom of the loop.
We grabbed a sandwich at a local cafe, then walked a few blocks and unfolded our camp chairs inside the handsome stone gates of Brevard College, which welcomed the celestial seekers.
On the vast lawn, Frisbees flew, soccer balls bounced. Someone played a banjo as we all waited, not knowing if our efforts would be rewarded.
The sky had pulled a soft gray shawl of clouds over her shoulder.
It was a laughable situation. Humans can predict, to the second, when an eclipse will occur, but if it’s cloudy, game over for a high-resolution view.
There was nothing to do but chill.
The crowd thickened.
The clouds thinned.
Shortly before the eclipse was due, the sun popped out.
It was a small miracle, one that happens almost every day, but in this context it felt personal. The sun and moon would come through for us.
We felt the moon’s shadow gradually, in the way you feel the temperature dip when storm clouds roll in.
Deeper we slid into darkness.
It was about 1:30 in the afternoon.
The automatic streetlights came on.
The night birds chirped.
The crickets, tricked into thinking the day was done, struck up a ringing chant.
Through cardboard glasses with lenses of sun-safe black film, we watched the disc of the moon slide in front of the sun until only the faintest solar halo, the sun’s corona, was visible.
The crowd fell silent, and the sound of clicking cell phone cameras competed with the crickets.
This was big. Bigger than us. Way bigger.
Then something remarkable happened — everyone broke out in spontaneous applause and woo-hoos. A communal standing ovation. It reminded me of watching the sunset at Pass-a-Grille Beach in Florida, where the disappearance of a neon orange ball into the Gulf of Mexico is punctuated by cheers and the ringing of a brass bell on the beach.
Only this was not a practiced response. There was no tradition to be observed. It felt like a visceral gesture of human bonding and gratitude.
Brava you, Mama Earth.
Thanks for making us feel small. In a good way.
On April 8, 2024, another total solar eclipse will be visible in this country. The Path of Totality will arc from Texas to Maine. I hope to be in the dark somewhere.
Tom English of GTCC will be watching, too, either from campus or from somewhere in Ohio, the area nearest Greensboro for lights-out. He hopes to experience the darkness in person, with other people, as he did with a group of students and colleagues who traveled to South Carolina to stand in the moon’s shadow in 2017.
“It’s something you want to do in your life,” he says, noting that the next total eclipses over the U.S. will occur in the 2040s.
Nothing, he says, replaces being right there.
“Have you been to the Grand Canyon? Have you seen pictures of the Grand Canyon. It’s not the same, is it? The whole world is transformed, and if you’re not standing in it, there’s no way to know.” OH
Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Email her at email@example.com. For GTCC’s celestial viewing schedule, go to @gtccastro on X (formerly Twitter) or to the school’s website, gtcc.edu/observatory, which includes a page on upcoming eclipses.