Overshadowed: A Total Eclipse In The Heartland

July 9, 2017 clifftop CliffNotes

Solar eclipse image courtesy of The Exploratorium.

by Rev. Sheldon W. Culver for Clifftop NFP

On August 21, 2017, two weeks before Labor Day, life in the Heartland of America will pause.

Office workers may step outside to look up at the sky. Children, already back in school, will stop chasing balls or running around the track to see what happened to the sun.  People driving cars may pull over to the side of the road to look at the darkening skies, and the headlights on light-sensitive cars, as well as light-sensitive streetlights, and dusk-to-dawn lights at home, will automatically turn on, if only for a few minutes.  All this and more will occur as people stop their daily activities to witness the amazing moments when the moon overshadows the sun.

The total eclipse of the sun occurs around the globe on a regular basis, but since our earth is mostly water, the band of earth effected by the moon overshadowing the sun is relatively narrow, and the minutes of darkness so brief, the opportunity for people on land to witness this event is quite rare.  Many will have seen a partial eclipse of the sun, and even more may have watched the moon grow deep orange in color during a total eclipse of the moon, but August 21st’s spectacular celestial event will provide a completely different experience. We are fortunate to be in the line of the moon’s shadow this summer and we need to take advantage of this very rare opportunity.

Across Central Missouri and Southern Illinois, we will be privileged to experience a total solar eclipse, which means that we will observe the moon completely covering the sun’s rays until only a small ring of light, a corona, shows forth around the edges of the moon, and the world turns dark. The last time this happened in our region was in the 1400’s when the Mound Builders were living and building their communities of commerce and religious observance along the banks of the Mississippi River.

There is more to the story in our small corner of the world.  The total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, will be truly exceptional, the first in 99 years to cross the entire breadth of the continental United States. David Baron, author of the recently published book American Eclipse: A Nation’s Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World, writes about the eclipse of 1878.  Baron has been fascinated with the phenomenon of the total solar eclipse, to the point of traveling around the world to experience five of them, so far.

In the prologue to American Eclipse he describes the experience:

“A total eclipse pulls back the curtain that is the daytime sky,

exposing what is above our heads but unseen at any other time:

the solar system. Suddenly, you perceive our blazing sun as never before,

flanked by bright stars and planets.” 

Baron elaborated on this description in an interview with Don March, host of St. Louis on the Air. “You can see what’s up there, you can look toward the center of the solar system. That’s what blew me away in 1998. I could see the sun, although it looked like a shimmering wreath in outer space, and I could see the planets at the same time. You can see the planets and stars at night, but the sun is on the other side. This allows you to look into the solar system, which you can’t do at any other time.”

A total solar eclipse is the most unnatural natural phenomenon you will ever experience.  Without the charts astronomers and celestial scientists compiled over eons of sky-watching, we would be overwhelmed by this event even today, because it is so different from any other natural experience.  It is not radar-predictable, like major weather-related events, and it does not have the extended impact of hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, or earthquakes.  It simply happens and then it is over.

What makes this experience so spectacular, so unnerving, so awe inspiring is that “it is like visiting a different planet for the two minutes it happens.  Right now, there’s blue sky outside,” Baron said to Don Marsh. “When a total solar eclipse comes in, it strips the blue sky away. The sky will be strange colors, it will be twilight overhead but on the horizon it will be orange like sunset all around you, 360 degrees.  You’ll see the planets, you’ll see the solar corona, a glorious wreath, but you’ll also see flames leaping off the sun, solar prominences, which are rosy pink. In the moments before the total eclipse, you’ll see shadow bands, ripples of light like you see under water, but over land.  All the critters will be acting strange. Birds will act as if there’s a sudden, perplexing dusk. Bats may come out. Fireflies may come out. It is about 10 minutes before the total eclipse sets in that you really start to notice changes in the light and animals.”

When E. C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California speaks of a total solar eclipse and says, “It’s always a disruption of the established order.” And thus the stories found in mythologies, world-wide, reflect this overwhelming experience.  Krupp illustrates his comment with this image: “In Vietnam, a frog or a toad [eats] the moon or the sun…while people of the Kwakiutl tribe on the western coast of Canada believe that the mouth of heaven consumes the sun or the moon during an eclipse.”  Consuming or swallowing the normal order of things is at the heart of the cultural experience of a total solar eclipse.  In fact, the earliest word for eclipse in Chinese, shih, means “to eat.” Other myths tell of deception and theft to explain the sun’s disappearance during an eclipse. For example, Korean eclipse mythology involves fire dogs that try to steal the sun or the moon.

We may believe that our astronomical explanations are superior to such mythic tales, since we can easily predict the occasions of eclipse, past and future, which may give us a sense that we know what it’s all about.  But the language of science will never capture the awe-inspiring mystery of day turned into night by the shadow of the moon.

Rev. Culver recently retired as Conference Minister at the Illinois South Conference, United Church of Christ. An avid outdoor person, Shelley is a life member and volunteer with Clifftop.

Clifftop is hosting a total solar eclipse viewing event at the Paul Wightman Subterranean Nature Preserve from 11 am to 3 pm on Monday August 21st. The Nature Preserve offers a natural setting for viewing this most unnatural natural phenomenon. Experience this rare event among the prairies, woodlands, and ponds along with the creatures that make their homes on the preserve.

Solar and planetary scientist Dr. Michael Krawczynski, Washington University, St. Louis, will make a presentation and also offer extraordinary close-up viewings through solar telescopes. Rev. Dr. Culver will touch on the spiritual aspects of a total solar eclipse. Fiddle player Jerry Wiley will be on hand to entertain.

Clifftop is providing safe solar eclipse viewing glasses for this event which is free and open to the public. Reservations are limited to 200 and attendees must pre-register by calling (618)-935-2542 or by email to cliffmbr@htc.net no later than August 19th.

CLIFFTOP, a local nonprofit organization, is focused on preserving and protecting area bluff lands.

A version of this article appeared in the 7 July 2017 edition of the Monroe County Independent.

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