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Peaking at Totality

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Total Solar Eclipse, August 21, 2016, Nashville, Tennessee ~ photo by Isa Bitner (click photos to enlarge)



It’s a once in a lifetime event. A total solar eclipse passed over Nashville today, and the city’s population reportedly doubled briefly as approximately a million people arrived in the area from out of town to witness it. Parties were scheduled all over town, with commercial opportunities galore as eager consumers snapped up eclipse glasses, eclipse t-shirts, beer brewed especially for the eclipse, cocktails crafted for the eclipse, eclipse mugs and growlers and tote bags and ball caps and smart phone apps. Experts across the country shared astronomic data and compiled essential playlists. The Atlantic reprinted Annie Dillard’s superlative 1982 essay Total Eclipse.

As the day loomed various celebrations were planned all over town, including a sold-out party for 10,000 at First Tennessee Park (home of the Nashville Sounds) hosted by Adventure Science Center and Metro Nashville and including a kick-off speech from Mayor Barry and music from Nashville Symphony musicians. Metro Nashville Public Schools – creating consternation as usual – had initially scheduled the day off for students, but decided to hold classes after all on July 11, then reversed their decision and called off school for the eclipse again on August 8.

“I survived an Apocalyptic Eclipse”

We spent the morning leading up to totality at Cheekwood, Nashville’s beautiful botanical gardens – our daughter has volunteered here in the past and was invited to return for the eclipse event, so as her chauffeurs we were allotted a parking space in the employee lot and arrived early. Yesterday I climbed into the garage loft to retrieve the collapsible chairs we bought years ago for sideline attendance at youth soccer games, and we set them up on the Cheekwood lawn under a tree. In true American 21st century fashion, my wife set up a wifi hotspot with her phone and we both proceeded to work on our laptops for several hours as the food trucks and the crowds arrived. We had been told when we parked that Cheekwood was expecting more than 3000 people for the event.




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Christopher Columbus hoodwinks the natives

My oldest associations with the phenomenon of an eclipse are literary and historical, and all involve trickery and the clever manipulation of a situation by someone in danger who pretends to have magical powers. On his fourth voyage to the new world in 1504, Christopher Columbus reputedly used a lunar eclipse (which was predicted in a handy almanac he brought along) to convince natives in Jamaica to supply his crew with provisions, pretending that his Christian god was displeased with them and would punish them with famine and worse if they didn’t cooperate. As a sign that he meant business, Columbus told them his god would darken the moon for starters. He then retired to his cabin for a couple hours to let the natives fret, coming out in time to accept their pledge of assistance, and for the moon to reappear.

The two literary eclipse references I have known since childhood both involve a solar eclipse, and both involve Merlin, the magician at King Arthur’s court. In Mark Twain’s comic  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1890), the protagonist Hank Morgan – who wakes up after a blow to the head in medieval England – is sentenced to burn at the stake by King Arthur’s court, led by Merlin. Luckily for Hank, he is tied to the stake on June 21, 528, the day of an historical solar eclipse that Hank – also luckily – knew about before he hit his head and was transported back in time. Like Chris Columbus, Hank is able to pretend he has super powers, threatens to blot out the sun, and quickly talks his way to freedom and favor.

The eclipse story that made the strongest impression on me, however, is not as well known. Merlin’s Godson, by H. Warner Munn combines two long stories – The King of the World’s Edge and The Ship from Atlantis – into a single book. It is the “prequel” to Munn’s much longer novel Merlin’s Ring. I read both of these enthralling, fantastic adventure stories several times in my early teens.

In The King of the World’s Edge, the Roman soldier Ventidius Varro, centurion under Arthur “Imperator of Britain”, travels across the Oceanus Atlanticus after the death of Arthur with Myrdhinn (the same) and a small band of soldiers, eventually subduing the natives to become King of the Western Edge of the World in the name of Caesar. The story was first published in 1939, and may have been conceived and written as much as a decade earlier.  In a ceremony before the Onondaga nation, it is Myrdhinn/Merlin this time who demonstrates his superhuman facility with the help of a solar eclipse, with expert timing and clever oratory consolidating his power and turning the tide of events in his favor.


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What Mark Twain and H. Warner Munn didn’t know – perhaps because they had never experienced a solar eclipse – is that the sun is so bright that one cannot actually see the moon gradually moving over the face of the sun towards totality, at least not unaided, without a special pinhole contraption or special eclipse glasses ordered online. The peak moments of the solar eclipses in their stories depend on this gradual darkening of the sun for their characters to trick the assembled masses and save the day – something that anyone who has experienced a total solar eclipse can tell you just doesn’t happen.

I experienced an annular eclipse solar eclipse on May 10, 1994. I will never forget it because it occurred on the day of my grandfather’s memorial service, which I have written about here. I remember standing in the parking lot of the Lutheran church in rural Pennsylvania after the service and looking at a shadow of the eclipse in progress on a piece of paper with my uncle, who commented on how much Grandpa (a scientist and a doctor) would have loved the eclipse, and no doubt would have prepared a much better way to observe it.

That was only a partial solar eclipse, and the sun did not darken. Nor did it today, until the very last moments before totality.

Total Solar Eclipse, August 21, 2016, Nashville, Tennessee ~ photo by Isa Bitner

The atmosphere at Cheekwood today was celebratory, with food trucks on hand, alcoholic beverages and souvenirs for sale – the experience was much like attending a sporting event, or a rock concert. In fact a four-piece rock act aptly named Sunseeker entertained the crowd with a set that began when the moon first began to edge in front of the sun. The music came to a stop shortly before totality, and the crowd was strangely quiet, if only for a few minutes. Then, as the last sliver of the sun was eclipsed by the moon, it did get dark, and perceptibly cooler. Thousands cheered and stared up at the sky wearing their paper glasses.

We watched the sky for the brief minutes of totality. I stood close to my wife, happy to be experiencing this moment with her and our daughter.

And then it was over, and life went back to normal.

As we were driving home I thought about my tendency to live my life from peak experience to peak experience, and my lifelong struggle to inhabit the small moments in between more fully – to pay more attention to the plains and the valleys of my life, and not spend so much time with my eyes on the “mountaintops” ahead of me and behind me, anticipating and remembering.

The total eclipse was a remarkable thing to watch, but part of me was left wishing that such a grand cosmic event would have been accompanied by more momentous ceremony. Food trucks? T-shirts? Where were the druids?


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