Ecliptical Realities

A writer's quest to discover the allure of the eclipse

Emily Shepherd October 17, 2023

Last Saturday as I traveled to Corpus Christi from North Carolina to view this year’s annular solar eclipse, an unwelcome thought pestered me while I reviewed my eclipse-viewing guides, multiple eclipse-viewing lenses, and eclipse maps: that this was going to be an astronomical disappointment.

The morning of the eclipse, clouds blanketed the sky and humid air poured in from the Gulf of Mexico. To ancient generations, an eclipse was neither a calculated travel destination nor the edifying spectacle we make it today, but an appalling brush with catastrophe.

The English word eclipse comes from the Greek ἔκλειψις (ekleípō) meaning disappearance or abandonment; even Milton’s manifestation of Satan in Book I of Paradise Lost captures this intertwined sense of social calamity and natural distress: “In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds/ On half the nations, and with fear of change/ Perplexes monarchs.”

Although our scientific worldview no longer reads natural phenomenon as manifestations of cosmological strife, through all my planning, I wondered if my travels were a fool’s errand, just as a previous sojourn to the Southwest in my younger years had been.

Ten years ago, I gazed over the handrail of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim into a lot of air blurring the North Rim, trying to call forth the feeling of awe I had heard so many people describe, or at least non-ambivalence. Yet, I felt uninspired; the famous vista was lacking its more famous elements—sunlight streaming though hoary clouds, emerald greens and chili reds, an implausible twinkle from the distant river below.

Grand Canyon photos freely available on the internet had inspired in me a greater surge of adrenaline than the real thing. Instead, I felt like I was gazing at a muted painting of the vista veiled by hazy Plexiglas. Indeed, the internet teemed with glittering images of all kinds: hyper-vivid rainforests, technicolor auroras, animals in the midst of battle, sex, or extravagant tranquility, volcanic eruptions, bioluminescent bays.

The immense quantity and infallible quality of the nature-photography-mediascape recalls what birding enthusiasts call “looks.” A look is what you see with your own eyes. A bad look might entail a short flash of a bird’s vent obscured by foliage. A good look normally entails an unobstructed, colorful, macro view of a bird presenting its most bird-like behaviors, whether it be exhuming seeds from a sunflower or ripping a fish from an estuary.

Standing there on the South Rim, I fashioned a tentative premise to the taxonomy of looks—that the best looks come from surprises.

In the intervening years, I found my premise confirmed—profoundly unexpected experiences awaited in nature, and they delivered the best euphoria. On a mountain above Lake Tahoe, I discovered with glee that male hummingbirds are loud; they clatter like Kingfishers while tracing vertical circles around their prized territory so loud and so fast they produce the Doppler Effect. Once, chest-deep in the Atlantic Ocean off the North Carolina coast, the sudden emergence of a dorsal fin between the waves terrified me until the next great swell revealed not the body of a shark but of a colossal dolphin in the green wave. I trembled at the sheer unexpected mass of the animal as it rode the wave past me, its physical proximity giving me a kind of quasi-vertigo.

I still held this premise last Saturday as I traveled to view the annular eclipse, which, in the modern catalog of natural phenomena, surely now ranks as the least surprising, since it can be predicted years in advance. Since my trip to the Grand Canyon, I have avoided nature photography, weirdly hoping to preserve an oeuvre of aesthetic and exhilarating looks to be discovered by surprise by my future self. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist traveling to the 2023 annular eclipse. Celestial bodies! The moon devouring the sun! Secretly, I had a desire that this taxonomy of looks might actually be false, that the movement of heavenly bodies might instill rapture, despite their numbing predictability.

But as the day of the eclipse approached, I feared it would also seem diminished in real life, like the Grand Canyon—a smaller, lower-resolution replica of the high-def “ring of fire” images that peppered my screens.

Under cloud cover, my father, his girlfriend, and I crossed the road from the hotel to the beach. We sat on a towel and arrayed our various viewing devices around us: eclipse glasses, two-times magnification binoculars, eight-times magnification binoculars, sunglasses. A throng of four-wheel drive trucks and a crowd of eclipse viewers shuffled around us. The clouds thinned, but did not break, as the moon carved its first scalpel-thin cut from the crown of the sun, forming the first mandorla. A murmur arose from the crowd.

I took a picture with my refurbished iPhone to see if the lens could capture the moon’s shadow. It did not. The sun still absorbed most of top right quarter of the photo’s frame with a blaze of white. The mandorla—a pointed oval shape formed by two overlapping circles and accompanying many images of Jesus and Mary—grew pixel by pixel. My little group exchanged the various lenses in swift succession, gazing through the glasses (which showed the sun in blurry red), the binoculars (which showed the sun in razor-crisp white), and the glasses again. An hour passed. I took more pictures—the sun was still too bright to capture the moon’s silhouette.

Then the air cooled, the ocean darkened, and a subtle but perceivable darkness seemed to grow from below rather than descend from above. And yet, if you didn’t know an eclipse was happening, you might just consider the strange light to be an effect of the clouds. The shimmering surf, normally blinding in the sun, degraded to a muted dappling. I grew slightly bored and inspected my pictures. They surprised me. Branded in the lower left quarter of them rested a tiny, crisp, neon-blue, inverted image of the sun.

I leapt up and tried to recreate the phenomenon with another picture. It worked. By lying flat on the ground and tilting my phone at a diagonal angle, I could recreate the capture, collecting a time lapse of the eclipse overlayed on the tableaux.

Astronomers say that far in the future, the earth might become tidally locked to the moon, meaning that just as only one face of the moon currently faces earth, one face of the earth will face the moon, and the other half of earth will be perpetually moonless. Where I had trekked, via convenient jet plane, several hundred miles to view an eclipse, my descendants, if there still be any humans on earth, might trek halfway across the globe just to view a full moon.

I wondered if those future people might consider my little images beautiful, even surprising.

Time lapse of the annular eclipse taken near Corpus Christi, Texas on October 14, 2023. (Emily Shepherd)
Emily Shepherd

Emily Shepherd is a freelance writer covering science, including wildfire and wildlife conservation. She worked in wildlife conservation for eight years, followed by two years fighting wildfires as a U.S. Forest Service hotshot. Her work has appeared in EOS, Undark Magazine, and Terrain.org. Find her on Twitter @emilyshep1011.

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