In 2017, I cancelled my plans to see a total eclipse, asking myself, “Why do I want to stand in a giant shadow?” I’d seen a few partial eclipses before. I didn’t want to get caught in what some feared would be a days long traffic apocalypse.

Still, I was enamored of the idea of an eclipse. I was once caught by surprise by a partial eclipse and was fascinated to discover every dapple under a tree had turned into a crescent. Every dapple, I realized is is an image of the sun. The trees are constant Cameras obscurae.

In an eclipse, partial or total, the moon itself is conspicuous in being an absence in the sky — a thing that, when viewed through eclipse glasses, slowly renders the featureless circle of the sun first into something like a cartoon eye (left) looking off to parts unknown. Then, the sun is made a crescent. It looks like little more than a simple logo of the moon (right), even though it’s the sun, partially occluded. The moon reveals nothing of itself.

The more the sun is covered, the more fascinating the eclipse becomes. When it reaches 70 or 80 percent, the light grows not just dim as it would on a cloudy day, but strange and otherworldly. We all know the character of the sun’s light from a lifetime of experience and so the change feels preternatural. We never have cause to notice the edges of the sun are different than the middle. (We’re not supposed to look directly at it, after all.) A friend described this shift as “the dead light of the underworld” but under the same sky it seemed to me silvery and ethereal, as if magic narrowed every shadow to a crisp edge. This is what happens when the sun’s light is winnowed down to a razor thin rim.

It is then that the improbable takes over. The moment of totality. The difference between a partial eclipse and a total eclipse is extreme.

It is difficult to capture with words, or images, the breathtaking majesty of the unbearably brief moments that follow. The moon perfectly covers the sun with an almost ludicrous exactitude. Both celestial bodies merge to become another thing, like a deep, black hole in the sky. An inverse of a full moon. The opposite of the sun.  This is surrounded by a glorious corona ejecting in every direction, shaped by magnetic forces that will only be visible for these few minutes. I briefly thought, this must be what it would be like to see a god. If the thing had spoken I would not have felt any greater awe.

Around me,  at the edge of a playground full of children too young to contemplate the infinite and extraordinary, everyone falls totally still, even the smallest of them. We all gasp or scream or laugh. I feel a visceral thrill and awe that I know I cannot adequately impart and then, embarrassingly, I hoot like an owl. This is what my body did beyond my control. I don’t even realize it until later, when I listen to the sound on my recording.

While all this happens, another show surrounds us. The sky is turned indigo and a few stars and planets are revealed as a secondary night begins. The glow at one horizon turns gold in an uncanny imitation of dawn. The light is caused not by the sun emerging over the mountains, but by the sun beaming down around the shadow of the moon, hundred of miles in the distance. The incandescence shifts and another horizon plays the same trick, like some mad lighting crew testing out where dusk or dawn might look best. The sun, still an inky black dot in a royal blue firmament, remains above us, poorly concealed because of its conspicuous ejecta, five or ten times the size of a star I take for granted, pretty much every day. 

The dusk of an eclipse

I find it astonishing to know the corona will remain above us, flaring out into every direction when these three minutes expire. It will simply be hidden from our view, veiled by the blue atmosphere and the extreme light of the sun.

Thousands of people in every direction move as these seconds tick by, as if unsure what to do now, or how to gulp it in. They are swaying or pacing or jumping up and down. They applaud. They scream some more in waves. My heart is pounding, in my chest and in my neck. The black circle above me seems impossibly dark and vivid.

In this specific eclipse, on this day in April, at this moment, two tiny, almost blinding pinpoints of brilliant red light shimmer out from the edge of that black spot. Like evening stars, their tiny size in the sky belies their truth. These are two colossal solar prominences* erupting from the sun’s surface, extending beyond the blot of the moon. They look frozen in time despite their turbulence. They roil on a scale of time that befits the sun’s age, not mine. The scale of all of it it is impossible to comprehend. The size of the moon. The size of the sun. They take up no more space than quarters held at arm’s length. Those two tiny dots of pink light are each prominences, curling licks of flame more than large enough to engulf the Earth. 

Then there is the impossible brightness of the sun itself. 

We’ve all been warned not to look directly at the eclipse until totality and then only for those few minutes. I suspect all of us failed in (hopefully) tiny flashes throughout the day. Some of us pull the glasses away too soon before the sun is hidden and I doubt any of us avoided the bright blast as the sun emerged on from the other side of the moon — another thrill that brought cheers to the fields around me. I felt an awe so powerful, it brought a mournful grief along with its end. Or maybe it was greed. I wanted more.

I was fortunate to capture the final moment, barely attending to my camera as I watched the event itself and fumbled with the controls. I got very, very lucky and still I know that as lovely as this short video is, it barely shares a fraction of the glory. If you want to understand how much brighter the sun is than we normally understand, I have to become practical and describe the short video I’m sharing with you. I don’t want confusion, especially in this, the misinformation age.

I had a filter on my lens throughout the day, and removed it seconds after totality. I clicked some pictures but had knocked into the lens and thrown it out of focus. I took 10 valuable seconds to correct it by eye then clicked away without looking. Then I stopped to soak it all in.

With my off hand, I took a few photos at random with a second camera. I didn’t look. Few of these show anything worth sharing. Then, as totality neared it’s end I switched my camera to shoot video.

In the first seconds, I clicked open the aperture which gives the corona the appearance that it is growing or introducing itself. This is an effect of exposure, not the eclipse. The corona itself extends many times farther out than you can see in this image. The sky around it was a deep gloaming blue too, not the black the camera records. You’ll see the bottom of edge of the moon begins the brighten and then a star pattern emerges. This is an optical camera flare beside the loop of a bright red prominence. 

You can hear one of my neighbors call out “diamond ring!” Her countdowns and call outs were invaluable to me. You can hear my hoot if you listen carefully. I’ve composed and overlaid some music to both obscure this slightly, and to better convey the intensity of the moment. The audio is a mix of the tiny, inept microphone on my camera, and the sound I recorded on my phone, which I tossed on my blanket and knelt on several times. (It is not very good sound.)

I’ve stabilized the video because of all my fumbling around. As a result, even though the eclipse is moving through the sky, it’s being kept steady in frame until the sun emerges. Here, cheers explode. The light of the sun blooms and slowly overwhelms the frame, blasting everything with the suns radiance. In the course of a few short seconds, the light becomes so bright it obscures the details of the sun and moon. The sun appears to have fully emerged but it hasn’t. That will take another hour or so. Above this intense glow, you will find a tiny, expanding crescent — a diminished, upside-down reflection of the eclipse from within the complex optics of the lens called a lens flare. (Yet another kind of flare!) Through the scene, a thin layer of wispy Cirrus clouds rolls vaguely upwards and west. Then, you can see something I find mind boggling. I screw my solar filter back onto my lens to protect my camera. What is left is the thinnest smile of a crescent left to drift away. A self satisfied grin. The sun’s light is diminished by 1/10000th by that filter, and the sun itself is still 99% blocked by the moon. Yet, even that tiny slice of sunlight would be enough to burn my lens and my eyes. Across the field everyone returns to their eclipse glasses against the blinding glare. In this light-diminished view, the corona and even those blazing prominences are all concealed again, invisible to us all as we return to our ordinary lives.

*I edited this to correct an error. I earlier referred to these solar prominences as solar flares — I didn’t know there was a difference! NASA says: “A solar prominence is a large, bright feature extending outward from the Sun’s surface. Prominences are anchored to the Sun’s surface in the photosphere, and extend outwards into the Sun’s hot outer atmosphere, called the corona.” “A solar flare is an intense burst of radiation coming from the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots.”

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