A few weeks have passed since viewing my first total eclipse of the sun, I am still trying to find words adequate to describe the experience. I must begin by acknowledging that words are not adequate. Nor are the photographs I took an adequate documentation of the experience. In the end, photographs are just a pale visual record for a moment in time that surpassed my expectations in a way that I could not prepare for or anticipate.
All image credits for this article Wes Chester unless otherwise noted. (The greenish cast of the partial eclipse photos is due to a filter made from #14 tint welder’s glass.)
First of all, I can report an experience of reverence, awe, wonder, even breathlessness. I was quite literally dumbstruck, and every descriptor seems too trivial, too banal for a truly singular experience. People often refer to the moment of totality with the catch-all word “spiritual.” As a phenomenologist I, resist this as a kind of reductionism in the context of an eclipse. Yes, an eclipse induces reverence, awe and wonder, but it is an event of extreme existential materiality, which reveals basic truths about how our universe works. It is a full and rich sensory experience of the mechanics of our solar system, laid bare, and observable without any special instruments.
The early stages, just after first contact, are undetectable from the perspective of the lived environment. Only glasses and special camera filters allow you to glimpse the impending spectacle. At this point most people are giddy, busily commenting on the earliest view of the shadow. There is only a slight dimming after 10 minutes. Everything seems to be happening at a holiday pace, lazy and easy. Like a baseball game in the early innings where you can turn your attention from the game to the picnic, and make conversation with your neighbor about mundane things. 20 minutes after first contact, “normal” is fundamentally altered.
A human being has no experience of being able to see the sun “dimming” through the thinnest depth of our atmosphere. There is none of sunset’s spectral shift towards the orange that comes from looking through the length of the atmosphere to the horizon. Instead, the sun remains blindingly brilliant all the way until the totality, but is smaller and smaller in volume. The brilliant white light spilling through leaves onto the ground beneath trees appears as tiny phases of the moon in the deepening shadows.
Photography by Judith Greer Essex, professional witness.
It isn’t just that you can see the eclipse coming. You can hear it in the deep silence from confused birds, suddenly overtaken with a rapid dusk. The insects you thought your repellent was repelling are suddenly biting like they do at dusk. The moon’s hard shadow seems to quiet everything. And you can feel it. As the totality neared on this day, the muggy 89 degree 100% humidity air, cooled 20 degrees instantly. There are no more conversations, just sentence fragments: ( “Two minutes…” “It’s getting really small”) Meanwhile in the realm of sight, the light takes on an odd aspect; getting dimmer without changing color gives the coming darkness an unfamiliar texture, high contrast, edges and shadows popping out.
Then the last moments before totality arrive, and everything changes. Jupiter becomes visible, and then shortly after, the stars begin to come out. There is the fleeting moment of the diamond ring, the sun even in its most diminished still blindingly bright. Then with the transformative occlusion of totality, the invisible becomes visible, the unseen becomes evident to the naked eye. The first thing you notice is the Sun’s massive corona, an atmosphere stretching far enough into space to swallow 10 earths in its thickness. (The photo does not do it justice). It is whiter than white, the spectrum of ionized iron particles that are never visible in nature otherwise. But in this moment they are revealed to the naked eye delicate looking streamers reaching raggedly into space, and 100 times hotter than the surface of the sun itself. A cry of wonder comes from the two-dozen voices around me, followed by an awestruck silence. Parents making sure kids are looking. The glasses come off, along with the cameras filter, looking and snapping, looking and snapping. It’s almost impossible to get enough just staring at the sky.
In the totality, we witness something that happens every 18 months somewhere, but also something that happens with extreme rarity at any single place on earth. (For instance the last total Solar Eclipse in Los Angeles happened on May 22nd, 1724, and the next one isn’t due until 3290, on April Fool’s Day if you must know.)
The time is fleeting, 2 minutes, 26 Seconds at this point on earth, but in the moment, there is nothing else happening that can demand even a small amount of attention. Clasping hands with loved ones, a few tears shed in the face of beauty, then before you can manage anything else, the sun’s raging photosphere clears the edge of the moon.
Bailey’s Beads ( image credit Arne Danielson via NASA. I was looking naked eyes when they burst forth)
It’s a magical moment, with light first pouring through the valleys on the moon’s horizon. If you are looking up (as I was) you see “Bailey’s Beads”, tiny individual flares of light on the moon’s horizon. In the twinkling of an instant, they connect, flare into one recreating the diamond ring. But if you are looking down, as my partner was, you saw a different, and utterly thrilling show, the dancing shadows of the mountains of the moon, projected onto the ground, moving swiftly until they are swallowed up by the emerging light of the sun. In a second, the totality is over.
Even “once-in-a-lifetime” doesn’t cut it as a description. It is an entirely unique and deeply compelling image. The façade of human achievement and control is torn away by the revealed scale of being. We stand on a marble naked to space but for a thin layer of atmosphere, and in the eclipse we witness for a few moments the rapid movement of the earth, and the orbit of the moon without any hope of changing those paths. We multiply those paths by the billion stars in our own galaxy, and the paths of the planets orbiting those stars: Both the wonder, and the utter impossibility of grasping the whole, becomes clear.
Last Kiss…for now. They will meet again
After the totality, the sun’s corona is again invisible in an instant, as if it never existed. But for those who have seen it, the image lives on in the imagination, the halo of white fire set in a field of stars that are always there if only we could see them. This lasting image may be a memory of a moment for some. For others, it becomes rich resource for metaphoric understanding of how things work, and how we make meaning in our lives. Falling into the second category, I find myself reflecting upon the experience in almost every area of my day-to-day life.
Because of the magnitude of the sun’s brightness, the image of the corona is only revealed by concealing the entire sun. This principle applies also to the most powerful images in our and our client’s lives. The sheer proportion of attention demanded by life’s challenges can obscure the resources it holds for change. In a phenomenologist’s experience of world, this makes perfect sense. We cannot see both sides of the tree at once. We cannot have the eclipse and the sun. And we cannot fully see inside the house without leaving the outside.
In order to forge new relationships with the images of our lives, we are compelled to “enter some doors” seeing what lies inside, always at the expense of concealing what was obvious before. The outcomes of such exchanges of view are not always obvious. In the totality, the shadow of the moon obscures the blinding light of one star, and reveals the magical dancing corona. But it also reveals a sky full of other stars and planets, invisible without the concealment of the one. And even a single glimpse of what was hidden changes the perspective.
This principle of asking, “What is concealed and what is revealed” is a deeply held tradition in Expressive Arts Practice, because it contains a seed of a deeply held belief, that the resources needed to solve the life challenge are held within the situation. Through the arts and the resource of the imagination, we can reveal the beginnings of a solution much fainter than the omnipresent “problem.” And this can bring a kind of wonder in itself.
Sometimes, you only need to know that the stars are always there.
-Wes Chester, MA, CAGS- Director Expressive Arts Institute