Sitting in the shadow of the moon

Two years ago I knew that a total solar eclipse would happen in the United States on August 21, 2017. By last summer I had already calculated which communities accessible to me and my family were on the path of maximum totality. By Christmas I was making plans to contact a church in one of those communities to see if my family could bring a picnic and watch the eclipse from their property. I was already surveying the communities through Google Earth ™ checking to see which of them was best suited for watching the sky and the surrounding landscape and also contained a church that might accept my request to borrow their property for part of a day.

I shared my plans with my extended family during our Christmas celebration. One of my relatives replied, “My home is on the path of the eclipse.” At first I demurred—the house in question was near the edge of the totality, not at the center. Besides, I would rather host the event than merely be a guest there. By the start of this summer, I scaled down my expectations and accepted this relative’s invitation.

The family gathering was diverse, including a boy almost one year old and a man almost ninety years old. Several people had assorted ideas about where best to watch the eclipse. In the end, we selected the porch and front yard of a member of the family—not the same member who made the initial invitation. We knew that the young children could be indoors part of the time, and also knew that some of us could walk or drive about a quarter mile, as the moon’s umbra approached, to see the shadow move over a wider landscape than could be seen from the house.

The group was equipped with enough eclipse glasses, although two of the women did not dare to look in the direction of the sun even with proper protection. I showed how to make a pinhole projector to monitor the progress of the moon across the sun. Once the eclipse surpassed fifty percent, sunlight filtered through the leaves of the trees also began casting crescent-shaped shadows like those of the pinhole. As the eclipse progressed, we noticed the changing colors of the sky and the foliage. Finally, in the deepening gloom, three of us walked the quarter mile to the better viewing area. We could see clouds in the distance already darkened by the shadow of the moon. Observed through the glasses, the sun appeared only to be a sliver of light in the sky.

Yet we could see each other and the surrounding area quite well throughout the event. It was never darker than the dusk of a sunset, even when we could remove the glasses and look at the corona of the sun surrounding the moon. Only a star or two was visible in the sky. Then, after a minute, it was over. The sun was again a sliver as seen through the glasses, and daylight conditions gradually returned. No nighttime animals came out of their homes, although daytime animals did quiet for the peak of the eclipse.

Only one member of the family claimed to feel disappointed by the experience. My excitement was increased by that of two young women in the family—one in her early twenties and the other in her mid-thirties. They were awed and interested by every step of the process. Most of us were very glad we took part in the experience.

The next total solar eclipse in the United States will be in April 2024. I don’t know where I will be living then, but I know that I will again do whatever is necessary to be in the path of the moon’s shadow. This time I will be more assertive about choosing a location near the center of the path rather than on the edge. J.