So, in August 2017 the Brexit Bargaining Chip and I travelled 5000 miles to Oregon and Washington State for the Solar Eclipse. And what a sight it was.
The whole event is enormously counter-intuitive. These photos you've seen with a bite taken out of the sun? Well you'll never see that with your naked eye. In fact you don't see anything of the moon. The sun's light, even when 99% of the solar face is eclipsed by the moon, swamps it.
When you're at 99%, a few minutes from the totality, you become aware of a slight sepia tint. Because the sun is now shining almost as a point source, all the shadows will have become extremely sharp such that even the hairs on your arms are clearly visible on the ground. Leaf shadows are refracted into weird multiples. The air has cooled and animals go silent. The natural world seems to pause.
The Bargaining Chip, me, and my buddy Dennver:
The human eye compensates so well that you only start to see the dimming at maybe 98%, but machines do however detect the reduction, and that's why street lamps and porch lights turn on. That was a weird moment when the lights around the flickered on. It all feels oddly dislocated, as if you've lost twelve hours and found yourself teleported into late evening.
But you still can't see the moon, nor can you look directly at the sun. And because you can't look at the sun, you see nothing grossly different.
Annoying things might happen: Our diner's TV showing a programme with Bonnie Tyler on a boat out in the Pacific, speaking about eclipses and awaiting the shadow.
And when the sun suddenly disappears below the lunar mountains - you're transported to midnight in an instant. The sun winks out and is replaced by a ghostly glow like a shroud around it. This glow you can never normally see - the 'corona', a million-degree wind flowing out into interplanetary space. I didn't see the fabled stripes of a diffraction pattern from the lunar mountains, but the Bargaining Chip says she did.
From 99.9% to 100% it's a phase change. You're thrown into another world. You find yourself muttering 'Oh my fucking God...what is that??'
When we later asked our Oregonian host how he'd found the eclipse, he made noises like 'Oh yes, it was really pleasant, really...nice'. What he meant was that he'd not bothered to travel the ten minutes into the zone of totality. From his home in Hillsborough he'd probably been at 99.5%, but hadn't clocked that last decimal point...hadn't been taken to the other world.
Me in the the car park of the Rickreall diner where we breakfasted then watched the eclipse with locals. (We didn't try the deep-fried pickles):
It's easy to see how the Ancients believed this to be supernatural. Everything seems normal until the last moment. The human eye adjusts, opening the pupil to compensate for the darkening, so there is no intimation of any object covering any of the sun. There is a slight presentiment as if a cloud were across the sun, then suddenly there is this total change to nighttime and the oddest and most beautiful thing you've ever seen is hanging above you where the sun had been just a moment before. And you can look right at the fucker.
Only two or three minutes passes and it's gone. There's the sepia and the preternaturally sharp shadows again, then it's back to business-as-usual.
But maybe you're less ancient - a society sufficiently advanced to have kept track of the moon, and so know that the sun is exactly where the moon should be. Then it would be kind of obvious that the interaction between the two was going to produce something different from the normal, irrespective of whether you lived in a Ptolemaic, Copernican, or giant crystal dome world.
But for the Bargaining Chip and me, the 5000 mile journey was worth it just for those two minutes. And then of course Oregon and Washington State are amazing.
We chatted a few days beforehand to a local who said he was going to 'canoe into the zone', whether to avoid the non-existent traffic or not, I don't know. I hope he made it.
Sleepy pre-dawn drive to Rickreall
Oregonian hordes will come!
We must arrive first
Entry to the shadow zone
Where are the legions?
We've come 5000 miles
But for the locals 50 miles was too far...
7am - scratching on the diner door
Only Dennver and Dormilona, no more
Pre-breakfast breakfast kills time
While the moon and sun align
Distant disk of darkness crossing the Pacific
No dimming yet
Invisible moon but our goggles reveal taken
From the sun a bite
Now an uncommon tightness to the light
Cloudless sight above
Little hint of what will soon kill
Even this last sepia tint
Fragmented leaf shadows crystalline
Our lanugo in sharp shadows align
Blue sky, clear sun
Yet street lamps turn on
Silence, nature apprehends
Dark wave leaps the valley
Fenris wolf swallows us
Sky falls away
Morning becomes midnight
Secret apparition replaces the sun
For the first time
The sun's clothing revealed
Frayed fabric sluices into space
Light lancing the blackness
Rippling white against jet
Gusting white beards
The visible invisible
Invisible now visible
Chance alignment of worlds makes of us believers
Beams the Cosmos into our awareness
Moment's shared amazement
Reality blinks back
'So...err, another breakfast?'