On August 21, 2017, a total eclipse of the sun has been scheduled for the United States. The timing is inconvenient in some ways, pretty nice in others. For us in western Oregon, where the eclipse will make first landfall, there is benefit in that our oft-overcast skies are likeliest to be clear in summer. If the eclipse had been scheduled for January, no one in western Oregon would get excited; the odds of seeing anything but two minutes of darkness would be minimal.
Since we no longer have education to speak of, I suppose I have little choice but to explain what a solar eclipse is. A solar eclipse occurs when the moon (which must necessarily be ‘new’ at this time) gets between Earth and the sun. Since the lunar disc is just a bit larger than the solar disc from our perspective, for about a hundred seconds the spot of totality is plunged into nightfall. As Earth rotates, of course, the current spot of totality rolls eastward. In this case, it will begin off the Oregon coast and pass through southern Idaho, smack across Wyoming and Nebraska and Missouri, then across Tennessee and South Carolina. The totality spot is seventy miles in diameter; the closer you are to its precise center, the better the show. The farther you are from the path, the farther from totality your view will be.
Oregon has a population of four million, and her authorities are in Eclipalypse Panic Mode. They expect a full million people to swarm into the state, mostly in the western part (I live about an hour north of the totality path). To hear them tell it, we are all going to die horribly. Power will fail. Cell phone towers will be overloaded. There are already no places to stay; farmers are renting little pieces of pasture for big money. All roads are to be so gridlocked that you could easily end up running out of gas (which of course will be unavailable) and dying of sunstroke when your A/C goes out while stuck on the I-5 traffic, emergency vehicles completely unable to reach you, the 911 system in collapse. The governor has called out the Oregon National Guard, and I’d bet she’ll summon the State Guard as well. Sensible Oregonians who cannot afford to flee now are committing suicide after a last meal of cruelty-free quinoa salad with a side of suburban guilt. There are quite a few preppers in Oregon, and I’m sure they are all battening down, locking and loading.
I think it’s hilarious, except of course for all the garbage people will throw on the ground (I hope the Oregon State Police catch and prosecute every single litterbug). The traffic may make Portland traffic bearable for once, with so many people drawn an hour south. Yeah, the roads should be busy down toward the totality path, but most people will go away that same day. Would it be smart to fill up one’s car beforehand? I will. Should we prepare to run screaming into the two minutes of misplaced nightfall (beginning around 10:15 AM)? I find the notion amusing. Have you all yet built your sandbag forts? Why not, you fools? We are all going to die, right?
What a fearful society we live in. Ever stop to ask who can profit most from keeping you in constant terror of your fellow humans?
Worth your time, sometime.
I doubt we are all really going to die. But I’ve been through a total eclipse. This is the first one in a long time that passes across the full width of the United States, but it’s not the first one in my lifetime to pass over part of the nation. We had one when and where I was in high school, and based on that experience, I can help prepare you for what it’ll feel like.
- The occlusion of the sun’s disc takes a couple hours to reach totality, and a couple more for the moon to get completely clear after totality. During the before-and-after, the sun is still pretty bright, but it’s dangerously easier than usual to gaze at. The authorities warning you to be careful of imitation eclipse glasses? Believe them. The problem is that, especially if the disc is just visible through overcast, it’s easy enough to stare at the sun long enough for permanent eye damage. Even when it’s easy to look–most especially when it is–treat it as if this were not an eclipse, taking suitable precautions. It’s not worth going blind over.
- Because this whole process takes about four hours, a lot of eager beavers will get in position very early, see the full onset of occlusion, and be bored stupid by the time the eclipse is total. See, an eclipse doesn’t have any sudden drama except for the short period of full totality; the rest of it is gradual. Once it’s over, I expect most of their attention spans to be well past exhaustion, and that’s probably when the traffic will really blow. I’d say expect about an hour of pretty slow going after totality, after which it should ease up.
- No matter where you are in the path–even in a city–you will be amazed how many animals are around you of which you had no idea. As totality approaches, for about half a minute, the daylight will fade very quickly to a dusk. For the animals, this dusk is happening way off schedule, and it rattles the hell out of them. They will all speak up at once, and it’ll amaze you. The sudden nightfall will occur after that, and the animals will truly be freaked. If it’s not overcast, you’ll get a good show in the totality path. We can’t normally see it, but the radiant energy from the sun extends out at least as far as the width of its disc. When totality ends, you get a dusky dawn, then daylight again. With the disc itself covered up, in darkness, you can see the full corona (as we call this radiant energy). I didn’t get to see it due to overcast, but I heard they saw quite a show out at Stonehenge.
And therein lies a tale.
I attended high school at a very small place in south-central Washington. The area is sparsely populated and received minimal overrun from eclipse hunters, which is partly why I think the Eclipalypse Panic is overdone this time. Some thirty miles from where I lived, there stands a tycoon’s full-size concrete conception of what Stonehenge must have looked like before rocks began to fall off one another. Sam Hill built this replica as a World War I memorial, not far from his mansion, and it offers breathtaking overlooks of the Columbia River as well as several other solemn war memorials at which one may pay tribute to locals who lost their lives in American service.
I was raised by a family of religious fanatics whose psychological stranglehold I would not escape until my mid-twenties. When we heard that a bunch of weird hippie pagans were going to go out and have a ritual of some sort at Stonehenge, I accepted the conventional wisdom: they’ll all probably get naked, have an orgy, load up on LSD and likely OD, stare at the sun until they go blind, and not understand what’s wrong with all this, all while clawing their faces off in the throes of bad trips. As we were in the path of totality, we ourselves did not need to travel to Stonehenge or anywhere else. A friend from school came up to our front yard to watch it with me, a good excuse to play hooky for the morning. In our callous teen male manner, intolerant of difference and immune to empathy, we joked how it would serve the doped-up weirdos right. Dumbass hippies.
I did mention, right, that it was a pretty small town?
The eclipse itself was a damp squib, as I mentioned, and we all went about our lives. Now advance the clock a dozen years, give or take, bringing me to the age of perhaps twenty-eight. Not long before, I had broken up with my ex-fiancée (and we all know how that turned out). A few years earlier, I had left Christianity and become a practicing Wiccan. Go ahead and say it, whatever it may be; I have it all coming. I’ll take my due hazing. I was studying Irish with a druid group led by my (then-new acquaintance, today longtime friend) Domi O’Brien. A scholarly lady of legendary hospitality and generosity, Domi hosted (and still hosts) amazing feasts to accompany spiritual events. Her sons have since grown into the wise, compassionate men I expected they would.
At one such event, I met a delightful lady named Cyndie. She was from Oklahoma, with a comforting gentle drawl a bit stronger than my own part-time rural Kansas twang. Her interest in me was obvious if decorous. This adjective is not always the case at pagan events, where there is often a shortage of obviously masculine straight males. There is absolutely zero in Wiccan culture to shame women from taking any initiative they might deem fit. Put another way, any straight, single young man in paganism doesn’t have to take a lot of initiative of his own in the gender relations department. If he’s not a complete jerk or moron, the only reason he’s going to stay by himself is by making an obstinate effort to do so. I wasn’t making an obstinate effort to do so.
Cyndie being a few years my senior, and a somewhat old-fashioned Midwestern daughter, when I mentioned my many times cleaning eave-troughs at the ranch with Grandpa, she saw her opening and played her best card. She told me that her house’s eave-troughs were well past due for a cleaning, but she just could never make time to get up there and do it.
Well, you don’t have to hit me over the head with a mallet. You all know the drill: the man gallantly offers to come over and do the dirty, unpleasant job. After pro forma protests, the woman agrees with thanks. She would not have invited him anywhere near her home if she didn’t feel pretty good about the whole situation, but the only certain thing is that she’ll make up a nice hearty dinner which they will share. Anything else that may occur depends purely upon how they both feel. This has probably been going on since Homo erectus, when demure young Ugha hinted to testosteroney young Gruk that the rocks in her firepit were misaligned, and perhaps he might find time to come over and straighten them up.
The eave-trough job turned out to be much worse than I expected. The ladder was in poor repair and a couple of rungs broke, once nearly dropping me all the way to the ground. It poured, of course, triggering her gallant duty to offer me absolution from the muddy, chilly task. The script called for me to carry the job through at all hazards and discomforts. (This satisfies the woman that the man is stupid enough, or interested enough in her–or both–to put some pain and broken skin into the game.) But before we even got to that part, I got the first shock of my day when I stepped inside her front door.
On her living room wall was a large painting the size of a modern big screen TV. It depicted a crowd of robed backs and mostly hooded heads gathered inside Stonehenge. Above them was a sun in a state of total eclipse, corona splattered about the black central disc.
Captain Obvious was on point, of course: “Oh. That’s the eclipse in 1979 seen from Stonehenge!”
“Yes,” said Cyndie, pointing in sequence. “That’s me, and over there is Isaac Bonewits, and here is Shadowstar Breakwind, and this is Silver Raven Moontime, and…” (Not actual names, those last two. In Wicca, there seems to be a hard and fast rule that everyone must incorporate into one’s pagan name as many of the words ‘star,’ ‘shadow,’ ‘silver,’ ‘raven,’ and ‘wolf’ as one can arrange. Other words are allowed in the name, provided at least one of those five is in use. Otherwise, it’s a foul.)
How much can shift in a dozen years. Before, I had dismissed a bunch of people I’d never met, all based upon inherited prejudices and juvenile arrogance. Now I was not only one of ‘those people,’ I was on a dinner date with one.
Cyndie and I dated for over a year. We weren’t really fated for the long term due to very divergent ideas on life, but it was a good time; she remains the only former flame with whom I keep in some contact. I can still hear that gentle Oklahoma drawl in my mind; she is a considerate, warm, and wise lady who taught me a lot. And I did do a good job on the eave-troughs.
I’d better, or my grandfather might reincarnate and start critiquing me.
Enjoy Eclipalypse 2017, all hundred and twenty seconds of it.
If we all die horribly, please send me an email informing me, so I can decide how to proceed from there.