It’s being called “The Great American Eclipse,” a phrase coined long before we started making America great again. Nevertheless, the eclipse could be the event that makes America great again. At least for a few minutes. On Monday morning, Aug. 21, the shadow of the moon will race across the American landscape in a path that resembles a diagonal sash from northwest to southeast. It lands first in western Oregon at around 10 a.m., for two minutes plunging the cities of Newport, Salem, Albany and Corvallis into a velvety darkness illuminated by the solar corona. It should also have quite an effect on 75 miles of Interstate 5, in a region where who knows what traffic jam will ensue. An hour and a half later it will exit the continental United States at Charleston, S.C.
Its over 1,000 mile-per-hour journey—called the path of totality—will cover major cities in a dozen states, including Nashville, Bowling Green, St. Louis, Kansas City, Lincoln, Casper, Idaho Falls, Oak Ridge and Sun Valley, plus Yellowstone and Smoky Mountain National Parks. If you know people in those cities, they are not going to be the same after the eclipse. Those few moments of a total solar eclipse are a window in time to an experience beyond time. Everywhere along the path of totality, there will be the same brief drama of watching everything normal transform into an altered state.
There is plenty of information to be gleaned on the mechanics of the eclipse. A solar eclipse is the moon passing between the earth and the sun, briefly covering the sun in broad daylight so that only the shimmering solar corona is visible. The march of the moon over the sun begins with a little notch visible at one edge of the sun that gradually moves across the whole disk. It exits in the same way, but the drama lies in the beginning, called first contact, leading to totality. This takes about an hour and a half.
Though the path of totality is small, the path of the partial view of the eclipse is vast. In this case, all of America will see a partial eclipse, in which 70 to 99 percent of the sun will be covered. At this latitude, the partial eclipse will be 80 percent, certainly a dramatic event. There are lots of interesting things to observe in a partial solar eclipse, such as crescent spotlights underneath trees, interesting changes in light, birds starting to sing and maybe something internal in you that shifts in excitement. (To see the sun in its partial phase, eclipse glasses are a necessity.)
What is particularly significant about the coming eclipse is not that it is rare. Eclipses are regular events almost always visible somewhere on earth every year or so. (In April 2024, the East Coast will experience its path of totality.) What is rare is a path that crosses a highly populated area in a time of year when the weather is favorable. This eclipse also crosses a portion of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, but its impact will be extraordinary on America. It has America written all over it. The significance of that for America in this particular historical moment is, well, huge.
As you can imagine, there is and will be plenty of blah, blah, blah about all this from every conceivable source. The madness is just beginning and will explode over the next weeks in social media and every other kind of media. Everyone will have some advice to give, significance to ponder, science to teach, historic events to cite and vast wisdoms to articulate.
As it happens, I have seen quite a few eclipses. I could even be described as an eclipse chaser. And I’ve known about this eclipse for 40 years. Back then, we didn’t know about the Internet and how the saturation of information might add to—or subtract from—the mystique of the event, a primordial event that transcends the modern world. The worse thing you can do is try to photograph it. Leave all that technology behind and simply experience it in a pure state of wonder.
There will be millions of photos of the eclipse and none of them will look like the real thing. The real thing is beyond photography because a solar eclipse is the consummate meeting place of all opposites: sun and moon, night and day, inner and outer, fleeting and lasting, big and small…all at once. It embodies quantum reality in that it exists because you see it. Your perspective creates an eclipse out of the impersonal rhythms of the universe, a perspective that also includes your personal journey and the synchronicities that surround it.
In America, the morning hours of Aug. 21 will overtake people’s ordinary attention, drawing them upward toward cosmic wonderment and beauty. It will be unique in each individual life and it will also be one of the most shared experiences imaginable. We will be the living embodiment of the United States of America. Couldn’t come at a better time.
Elizabeth Whitney is a writer and researcher living in West Marin.