This is the power of a total solar eclipse.
A solar eclipse is caused when the path of the Moon’s orbit leads it directly between Earth and the sun, causing our foremost source of light and warmth to be obscured for a few minutes. This causes a notable decrease in both of these natural amenities.
The recent eclipse of August 21 was unique in that it was the first to cross the width of the continental United States since 1918. It cut a 70-mile wide corridor from Oregon to South Carolina, within which you could see the total eclipse. Outside of this area, you could only experience a partial eclipse.
In ancient cultures, the eclipse was generally a reason for panic, as most all of societies considered it an evil omen, to some degree or another. I researched some of these historical fallacies shortly before the eclipse and found them fascinating.
Many thought the sun would never again reveal itself. Even today, some people fear the eclipse as a sign of future misfortune. Some even believe that the eclipse will poison food that is exposed to it. These are, of course, only myths, so I had no fear of seeing this astronomical marvel.
On Sunday, the day before the eclipse, my mother, her boyfriend Taylor, and I found an ideal place in the path of totality to view the eclipse. After much searching, we also found a good place to camp, directly below the Black Butte fire lookout in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, the location we had selected to watch the show. We passed quite a few other people on the dirt roads, as well a veritable impromptu city of RV’s and travel trailers.
On the day of the eclipse, we embarked on a short, one-mile hike to reach our chosen spot. This area seemed like an excellent choice, due to its secluded nature, an incredibly valuable quality for an event with such a massive turnout as the eclipse. There were a few others there who apparently had stumbled on a similar idea. I counted about 24. The fire lookout, being federal property, was off-limits, but there were some decent spots yet untaken. These also had the benefit of being somewhat less illegal.
To view the eclipse, donned specialized eclipse-viewing glasses. These viewers render the world so dark that only the sun is visible, and even then it registers as a dark, bloody orange.
There are a variety of unique phenomena associated with a solar eclipse. Two of the most readily apparent are “Baily’s Beads” and “Diamond Ring” effects.
The Diamond Ring effect appears first, during which the sun is mostly obscured and the corona is visible, but the moon is not centered exactly. This causes a large bright “diamond” of light to appear on one side of the corona.
The Bailey’s Beads effect occurs when the moon is back-lit by the sun, causing all the ridges and valleys on its surface to stand out.
A great many things happen within moments of the complete eclipse. For one thing, the sun is bright enough without the eclipse viewers to appear mostly whole until less than twenty seconds from the total eclipse. Visibility and temperature freefall in tandem during this time, and the Diamond Ring and Baily’s Beads effects theoretically come into play.
The two minutes of totality were otherworldly.
Everything stopped. There was a good deal of cheering and whooping, followed by an abrupt and reverent silence. The sky was all black and platinum, stars and darkness, moon and corona. The landscape was drenched in every shade of red, pink, and orange imaginable, with alpenglow all around. All the while, nothing moved.
And then, it was over.
This was a moment of sudden understanding for me, understanding of every myth regarding the eclipse. Of course the world is ending! Night has fallen in the middle of the day! Will it stay this way forever?! The demons must rise from the earth, with no sun to banish them!
Ancient cultures dealt with this in many ways. Prayer and panic were two fairly universal responses. The Mayans and Aztecs instituted human sacrifice and mass suicide, whereas American Indian tribes responded with thoughtful discussion. All of them, however, eventually found some explanation for it.
Perhaps a disembodied head had devoured the sun, but had no stomach to keep it imprisoned, as was thought in India. Perhaps the Norse were right, and a giant dragon had chowed down on the sun, with us finding it again in his refuse. Perhaps it was an evil omen. Perhaps the gods were angry. Perhaps it was a sign that the end times had come.
In this modern world we live in, most all of these can be disproved by science. But just because a story isn’t true, doesn’t mean it’s not possible to sympathize with its intent. A total solar eclipse feels like a truly supernatural phenomenon, and no myth can truly be considered too bizarre to explain it.
All in all, it was terrifyingly, stunningly, incontrovertibly beautiful, and a wonder of the natural world, not to mention a unique personal experience.
Zac Griffin, 14, is a local student and writer.