The Great American Cultural Eclipse

Viewers in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, which was briefly renamed “Eclipseville” for the eclipse. Photo courtesy Nicole Erwin, WKMS.

Total solar eclipses are magnificent, dramatic visual collisions of moon and sun. They are also cosmic provocateurs that provide life-long memories. The eclipse on Monday, August 21, 2017 did not disappoint. Beyond its heavenly mechanics, the Big Event served as a cultural and personal projective test of national dimensions. The eclipse arrived as a glorious celestial interlude in what had been a summer of violent racial conflict, endless political fights resulting from the blowhard tweeting of a new president, a polarized Congress and nation, and, oh yes, the growing threat of nuclear war with belligerent North Korea. It brought something for everyone. It came. We saw. We responded, in diverse ways and for many reasons.

The eclipse provided moments of distraction and even humor for an anxious nation. Playing on American skepticism, a senior editor at The Atlantic questioned whether the eclipse wasn’t some kind of conspiracy.1 Leading up to Monday, a prayer memed on Facebook: “Dear God, if you want us to impeach Trump, give us a sign. Like, blot out the sun…anytime in the next week. Thanks, Americans.” When President Trump defied pervasive warnings about looking at the sun without special eclipse glasses, he became the subject of yet another head-shaking meme: “It was the most tremendous eclipse,” said President Trump, stumbling around the White House. Just tremendous. I meant to go blind,”2 and of late-night comedy for Conan O’Brien and Alec Baldwin.3, 4

This was the “Great American Eclipse” for good astronomical reasons. It was the first transcontinental U.S. eclipse in 99 years and the first total solar eclipse seen in no other country but the United States since 1776. It was also the first total solar eclipse in the contiguous states since February 26, 1979, when one shadowed Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota before treating Canadian provinces to its show.5 In contrast, “As exciting as kissing one’s cousin” is how astronomers dismissed the “annular” solar eclipse of May 1994, which crossed a wide swath of the 48 states. In annular eclipses, the moon is farther from the earth and does not fully cover the sun, thus leaving a ring or “annulus” of sun visible. This time, the moon’s extended shadow, or penumbra, could be seen at least partially in every state. Its 70-mile wide darkest shadow, the umbra—the so-called “path of totality” and Holy Grail for eclipse addicts—raced across 14 states from Oregon to South Carolina at speeds ranging from 2,955 mph on the Oregon coast and 1,747 mph over central Nebraska to 1,502 near Charleston, South Carolina, crossing the United States in an hour and 33 minutes.6 In its path astronomers thrilled to views of the sun’s “Baily’s beads,” the “diamond ring effect” and its spectacular corona. Venus, Jupiter and Regulus became visible. Birds and insects thought the sun had set. Weather.com called it the “celestial event of the century” and thanked viewers for watching.

Numerous prominent websites cited solar eclipse numbers, both basic and technical. Eclipse2017.nasa.gov, eclipse2017.com, greatamericaneclipse.com, nationalparks.org, earthsky.org, Forbes, WSJ, NYT, Time, Vox, nationalgeographic.com, accuweather.com and many other media sources explained what was happening in the sky and why, when and where it would occur, how to watch the eclipse and what percentage of totality viewers would see according to ZIP Code or GPS coordinates. NASA and the American Astronomical Society shared special vocabulary beyond umbra and penumbra, including Besselian elements, chromosphere, first through fourth contacts, eclipse magnitude, eclipse obscuration, prominence and saros.7 The Guardian maintained a live blog before, during and after totality, offering “all you need to know,”8 just as it does for major sporting events or terrorist attacks. Interactive eclipse maps, animations, advice and glossaries were readily available.9 NASA had been planning for the eclipse for years and offered free downloadable posters and factsheets. NASA also showed how six people viewed it from space, as well as how the umbra passing over the United States appeared from the moon.10

Eclipse pages were generous with their do’s and don’ts. All reminded enthusiasts to view the sun only through special eclipse glasses. NASA encouraged viewers to save their glasses to help view sunspots, the sun’s “freckles.” One commentator cautioned not to wear them while driving. The Eclipse Megamovie 2017 from Google and UC-Berkeley, the “first-of-its-kind citizen science project,” compiled and stitched together 46,000 photos of the eclipse from 12,300 participants (https://eclipsemega.movie). It seemed no information on the eclipse was omitted.

Professional and popular numerical perspectives on the eclipse experience were everywhere. NASA supported “Science in the Shadow” research projects, including “Quantifying the contributions of ionization sources on the formation of the D-region ionosphere during the 2017 solar eclipse” (Robert Marshall, University of Colorado Boulder) and “Testing a Polarization Sensor for Measuring Temperature and Flow Speed in the Solar Corona during the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 August 21” (Nat Gopalswamy, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center) (https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/eclipse-2017-nasa-supports-a-unique-opportunity-for-science-in-the-shadow). For greatamericaneclipse.com, Michael Zeiler used “advanced ArcGIS.com software by Esri, U.S. Census data, and a road network model of every street in the USA, [to] present estimates for where people will gather for the eclipse and in what numbers.”11 The Weather Channel offered that 12 million people live in the path of totality in 14 states, an estimate that 1.8 to 7.4 million would travel to the path of totality and that “100 people have gone blind or suffered serious eye damage from watching an eclipse.”12

Amber Diffenderfer and Itan Chait Clemente, astronomy students capturing the eclipse, are part of the scene. Photo courtesy Robert Myers.

Total Solar Engagement

If it is true, as Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini wrote, that “numbers are America’s tranquilizers,” then the country should have been numb on Monday, August 21.13 But it wasn’t. Numbers helped people engage. The nation was enthralled by the event, moved and distracted for a short while from wrenching social strains as well as the mundane. As a New York Times quote of the week put it: “And for a moment, everyone in our nation stopped and looked up in the sky and forgot about hate.”14

Anthropologically, the eclipse was a cultural touchstone, meaningful in myriad ways beyond the scientific. Whether experienced as a social, familial, romantic, philosophical, professional, historic or commercial event—or some combination of these—it penetrated deeply. As tweeted by Netflix, the event may have been only “a giant rock cover[ing] a giant ball of gas,”15 but humans have always been determined to make much of the most basic events. Across the country, people cheered, clapped, sang, danced, screamed, cried, hugged, prayed, jumped in the air, dropped to their knees, felt chilled or fell to the ground, experiencing an awe rarely felt. Viewers described it as primal, profound, moving, stunning, dazzling, humbling, a link to something beyond human control, larger than life, to be shared across generations and remembered for decades. A silent, mesmerized stare captured many as if they had been frozen in place for minutes. It was indeed a “total eclipse of the nation’s heart.”16

“Can you see the moon can you see it seen . . .”17 wrote Gertrude Stein experimentally nearly a century ago, suggesting a multi-faceted, more holistic perspective.18 Seeing the eclipse as an anthropologist means remembering that “the photographer is always part of that which is photographed”19 and that there’s a lot going on from many different angles.

While the most expensive, sophisticated equipment available recorded the Big Event for professionals, cereal and pizza boxes became the average person’s pinhole cameras for viewing. Colanders and vegetable steamers multiplied the singular event kaleidoscopically. Sunlight streaming through trees or inter-laced fingers added to the many eclipse images before and after totality. Cell phones contributed amateur, often-blurred shots to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. A total solar eclipse is individually riveting, and begs to be shared.

The outpouring of emotional attachment to this most elemental of events speaks volumes. It was the most basic yet most sophisticated of sights, the ultimate binary. It was high minimalist art in which one perfect black sphere slipped over a glowing bright sphere. No thunder or lightning; no rumble of an earthquake, no volcanic explosion, no howling hurricane’s gale, no crash of huge waves, no train engine roar of a tornado. But the silence was not remotely “deafening” as the clichéd oxymoron goes. It felt profound.

Crowds of viewers hushed briefly for totality as if in the presence of the sacred. The sense of having a “peak experience” in the company of elegant beauty gripped many. Some viewers in Oregon enhanced their experience with special blends of marijuana.20 One scientist experienced “feelings of optimism and rebirth” as the moon passed.21 Time seemed to pause, and yet it didn’t really, for the moon continued on its way, inanimate and oblivious to the stares of tens of millions. Humans, not supernaturals, gave the eclipse meaning.

Even to an unscientific observer, it wasn’t a colorless, black and white event. To the naked eye the sun’s corona appeared pinkish in places, and the horizon had a red glow not normally seen.22 During totality, rays of light peeked around ragged edges because of the moon’s craters and mountains. The intensity of the sun’s edge at second and third contacts was powerful, as sharp as rays of sunlight can be. Astronomers patiently explained that all isn’t perfect here: the moon is bumpy; the earth isn’t perfectly round; the orbits aren’t circular; the sun has giant flares. But during those few moments of totality, details didn’t matter much to non-specialists.

Familiar words describing the event provide common denominators but sacrifice accuracy. The umbra may have moved in a “path” across the country, but that word obscured the racing “disc” viewers encountered. “Totality” is a misnomer because it never became totally dark, as “dark as night.” It was more like twilight, neither day nor night, an eerie, liminal betweenness where unusual events or strong feelings often lurk. The highway department warnings in Kansas and Missouri, “Make sure to turn your headlights on today during the eclipse,” were part of the inflated expectations of “totality.”23

Many faiths recognize an eclipse as an event of religious proportions. A Hindu belief holds that after watching an eclipse, one’s clothes should be purified. To ward off any possible bad luck, food prepared before the eclipse should not be eaten.24 A special Muslim prayer notes the time when Mohammed’s young son died during an eclipse. A YouTube video shows “How to Pray the [Islamic] Solar Eclipse Prayer.”25 Church groups across the country gathered to preach about God’s creative powers, without any specific prayers or rituals. “It’s a balance of modern-day exuberance and traditional reverence that people of faith across the nation” practiced on eclipse Monday.26 Grand Canyon Ministries offered special eclipse tours with viewings through their telescopes, although they were far from the path of totality (full day tours, $84-$119). Participants received a free copy of their “190-page full-color Biblical guide to the Grand Canyon with every reservation, a $15.99 value,” and Your Guide to the Grand Canyon: A Different Perspective (http://www.canyonministries.org/rim-tour-reservations/).

To many more the eclipse was a marketplace, an opportunity to sell or buy, a scientific lab, a therapist’s office, a community event, a chance to escape from work, an excuse for a road trip to visit that cousin who lives in the umbra’s path or a pretext for a party. It swept through the land, affecting the passions, interests and ambitions of millions. Communities and national parks across the country hosted organized gatherings; stadiums in the path of the umbra were filled with eclipse-glasses-wearing spectators. Bad weather threatened the 14,000 who met in Southern Illinois University’s stadium in Carbondale, Illinois, but clouds parted in time for the solar-lunar show. Eclipse music festivals sprinkled from Oregon to South Carolina included Moonfest Music in Idaho Falls, the Darkening of the Sun near St. Louis, Howl at the Moon in the Nashville area and Eclipse of Denial, an exclusive yacht party leaving from Charleston sponsored by Denial Events.27 Thousands gathered on the beach at Isle of Palms, South Carolina, for two minutes and 36 seconds of totality at land’s end. And: “For its ‘Total Eclipse of the Park’ on Monday, the Columbia Fireflies minor league baseball team set up a festival with interactive exhibits from science, technology, engineering and math-centric organizations in advance of its home game…. The team stopped play when totality hit Columbia at around 2:41 p.m. EDT. Players wore special glow-in-the-dark jerseys, which were set to go up for auction after the game.”28

The eclipse afforded political opportunity as well. For example, “In an email entitled ‘Eclipse’ the Democrats!’ the South Carolina Republican Party on Monday asked donors to contribute $20.18 toward the party’s efforts to ‘keep Democrats TOTALLY in the dark’ in next year’s elections. . . . The state’s Democratic Party sent supporters links to recent political articles in several outlets and reminded them of work ahead… ‘Nobody go blind today, there’s too much work to do for Democrats all across the state!’ party officials wrote.”29

Six couples had a mass eclipse wedding; a pair in South Carolina renewed their wedding vows with matching eclipse ring tattoos on Sunday.30 Kelly Turek and Chris Dutton in Georgetown, South Carolina, timed their marriage ceremony for the umbra’s brief visit.31

Electronic signs warned of heavy traffic on eclipse Monday. Photo courtesy Robert Myers.

On the Road Again

The eclipse’s timing, deep into August but before school and college had begun, enhanced the opportunity for many to travel to totality. It may have been “the greatest mass migration in American history,”32 and who could resist a draw of such magnitude?

Our group was among the 200 million living within a day’s drive of the path of totality and so we went, pulled there almost as mysteriously as Richard Dreyfuss was to Devils Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We were 13, including three astronomers, three physics and astronomy students but also artists, an anthropologist, an engineer, two retired people and an astronomer’s son, who drove 850 miles over 15 hours from western New York to Camp MoVal, a rural site west of St. Louis, to experience two minutes and 39 seconds of totality. On Sunday, while the scientists planned and practiced for Monday’s moments, three of us visited nearby Cahokia, the “City of the Sun” and largest archaeological site in the United States. We logged about 1800 miles altogether. That’s a lot of miles and hours on an effortful gamble for brief minutes of euphoria which could easily have been erased by clouds or rain, but in a society where the car is king and road trips are culturally institutionalized, we did our part. We hurtled south on the Interstate at 70 miles per hour, casting our own little shadow, determined to intersect with a dark disk 70 miles in diameter zooming across the country at more than 1,500 miles per hour. And we weren’t alone.

Media had warned for weeks of crowded roads, jammed viewing sites, packed parks and booked hotels; highway departments cautioned, “Solar Eclipse Monday. Plan Ahead” and electronic message boards advised “May Have Heavy Traffic.” We expected more traffic than we encountered. We knew the adventure would be successful because the eclipse gods gave us positive signs both going and returning. Soon after we set out, a bald eagle flew across our path, a brief shower produced a rainbow and a Mitsubishi Eclipse cruised by. St. Louis’s Gateway Arch glowed as if to welcome us personally on Saturday night. On Tuesday, the 850-mile drive back seemed to take much longer—as home-bound trips do—but heavy showers in Ohio yielded a double rainbow. Ours was a Great American Eclipse road trip.

Terrestrial responses to the solar eclipse were anticipated from uncultured creatures as well. Would the natural world be momentarily altered by brief darkness and a fall in temperature? Would the affects be much as expected, with species-specific responses to waning sunlight and warmth? Articles before the eclipse made claims for dramatic changes when animals would be “wild” or “extremely confused.”33 The California Academy of Science attempted to compile crowdsourced observations with its iNaturalist app.34, 35

Passionate birders kept track of what their subjects did during the eclipse. Cornell University’s ornithology lab posted observations from across the country at birdcast.info based on 1,350 systematic checklists submitted to eBirds.org at the time of maximum eclipse and from Doppler radar images. According to these reports, many species, as expected, responded as if sunset had come and began their evening or nighttime routines.36 But Kathy Garvey’s BugSquad blog had only a single post about a minimal insect response during a partial phase of the eclipse.37 Our group was so absorbed by the eclipse itself that no one noticed insects. Later, listening to their sounds in a recording of totality, we noted that they began making much more noise. House pets seemed oblivious to the Big Event.

Some asked whether a total eclipse would affect solar power. Several articles described concerns about this, but those worries proved unfounded.38, 39

Can you see the moon seen? Photo of Devin Henry’s eclipse photo courtesy Robert Myers.

Consuming the Eclipse

President Calvin Coolidge once said, “After all, the chief business of the American people is business.” Nearly a century later, the marketplace provided an exceptional arena of connections to the August solar eclipse. No commercial opportunities were left untapped, and if, as Aristotle noted, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” so does business. “Celestial sales” online and in stores covered a wide penumbra of products. “Get excited, shoppers. This August, the moon completely covering the sun means you could save some cash.”40

What stands out beyond the purely astronomical occasion is the matrix of hype and marketing in which it took place. It was a media and consumer-driven orgy. Long before August, products were being tailored to the Big Event. A quick search of Amazon.com showed the entrepreneurial engine in gear for the occasion. Ubiquitous eclipse viewers, including “wacky eclipse glasses” and camera solar filters plus a 2017 solar eclipse guide and map were bundled for sale from Celestron for $32.89. Road trip guides, travel books, and photography guides emphasized the eclipse; a solar eclipse luxury dog pillow was offered to make pets more comfortable.

Prices for some goods defied the category “bargain.” A Solar Eclipse Sanitation System for pools was available (only $1,705.58 with free shipping through Amazon Prime). A bottle of Walker’s Bluff Ozzy Osbourne Solar Red Wine, “a medium bodied dry red wine made from a blend of high quality Zinfandel and Syrah grapes,” was in stock for only $50 a bottle, or in a collector’s edition for $500, autographed by the Prince of Darkness himself and limited to 500 numbered bottles. The “wine bottle [is] placed inside a coffin, hand-crafted from poplar hardwood and lined with black satin pillows. Also includes a Certificate of Authenticity featuring a photo of Ozzy Osbourne signing the labels” (https://shop.walkersbluff.com/product/ozzy-osbourne-solar-red-wine-collectors-edition/). The wine sales promoted his performance, planned for 1:20 to 2:50 p.m. on August 21 at the Moonstock Music Festival 2017, the home of Walker’s Bluff in Carterville, Illinois, in the path of totality for two minutes and 31 seconds. Ozzy planned to begin with his “Bark at the Moon.” Tickets were $85 for the eclipse day and $125 for the entire four-day event (https://www.moonstock2017.com/moonstock-2017-tickets).

At more modest levels, phone covers, sundry jewelry, children’s books (including from 1974, Someone Is Eating the Sun), key chains, crocheted eclipse coasters at ravelry.com for eclipse parties, t-shirts and baseball caps marked the occasion. Burt’s Bees offered a lip gloss named “Solar Eclipse”; “Eclipse Solar Ultra Light Age Defense Cream, SPF 20” was $34.00. The hour-long video by Geoff Sims, Chasing Shadows (2016) was accessible for streaming on Amazon Video; various songs, art photographs and posters were available, too. Cafe Press (and others) offered eclipse drinking glasses, tumblers, coffee cups, travel mugs and tile coasters. If considering all these products made one tired, there were Time-Lapse Total Solar Eclipse Pillows for the bed ($19.99, Cafe Press) or Solar Eclipse Throw Pillows for the couch ($20.00, Redbubble).

The iTunes Apple App Store offered a solar eclipse timer (only $1.99) for the smart phone, while space.com reviewed “7 of the Best Total Solar Eclipse Apps for Aug. 21.” Among these were Eclipse Safari, NASA Globe Observer, Smithsonian Eclipse and Total Solar Eclipse by the San Francisco Exploratorium.41 Another reporter considered some of the 100 solar eclipse apps available.42

By August there were millions of solar eyeglasses as well as countless t-shirts and baseball caps—key parts of the national costume—at the base of the Great American Eclipse commercial pyramid. Eclipse glasses skyrocketed in price and became scarce as August 21 approached. Forbes’s editors and The Wirecutter listed the best eyeglasses and filters to help direct would-be viewers’ choices.43, 44 Issues of price and safety escalated as August 21 drew closer. A packet of 10 glasses, costing some 30-70 cents to make, sold for around $8 at the end of July, but cost $159 by mid-August.45 Welder’s helmets, priced on Amazon from $18.63 to $53.90 (“Firepower Eclipse Welding Helmets”) appeared in greater numbers than I ever suspected they existed, providing melodramatic viewing protection for the sensational event.

Amazon.com offered dozens of varieties of eclipse t-shirts at prices from $11.99 to $19.99, all with product descriptions as well as customer reviews and ratings. A few shirts showed dogs or cats wearing eclipse glasses, eclipsy fidgets, or eclipse-related comments (“Keep Calm and Stare at the Sun”). National parks offered their own shirts, as did some state historical sites in parks such as Cahokia. Eclipse baseball caps were as available as air, and in at least one case oddly marketed as a “neutral summer gift for friends” (https://www.amazon.com/August-Eclipse-Neutral-Friends-Baseball/dp/B073QHQF65).

Other commercial opportunities were legion. Chiquita creatively capitalized on the occasion with an ad in which the sun of a partial eclipse becomes a banana and traces a banana sun’s path across the United States. The ad copy warns, “Do not look directly at the banana sun” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVnAOVUjKdM).

Alaska Airlines offered a special invitation-only charter jet leaving from Portland to view the eclipse from 35,000 feet (https://newsroom.alaskaair.com/2017-06-26-Alaska-Airlines-plans-flight-to-chase-The-Great-American-Eclipse).46 Prices were not publicly advertised. Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas hosted a special Total Eclipse Cruise on which Bonnie Tylor sang her 1983 hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOeER1Q-kw0). As eclipse day approached, the only remaining tickets were offered for $2,000. Day two of the seven-day cruise featured the eclipse viewing party, while the other days included visits to Caribbean islands now all but destroyed by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.47, 48

At the pricier pinnacle of sales were “eclipse properties” in Oregon located in the path of totality. One listed for $449,900.49 This was a cosmically-based example of the realtors’ mantra, “Location, location, location.”

On June 20, the summer solstice, the U.S. Postal Service released a clever Total Solar Eclipse Commemorative Forever stamp. Thanks to thermochromic ink, the black lunar disc obscuring the sun at totality becomes a bright sun when a thumb is pressed on it. The rear of the stamp sheet shows the track of the eclipse across the United States.50 For eclipse Monday itself, the Postal Service used the stamp on an historic postmark for Cerulean, Kentucky 42215. This community is located near Hopkinsville, which temporarily changed its name to “Eclipseville” for several days to mark the longest totality experienced in the United States: two minutes 40.1 seconds.51

Mystic, Connecticut, experienced only 70 percent totality, but this afforded an unusual opportunity. A seaside graveyard tour offered a “unique daytime eclipse stroll . . . a viewing party of sorts with the living and the dead.” The event sold out, a real eclipse bargain at $18 a ticket. Ad copy read: “Whitehall Burial Ground is known to be one of the most haunted and notorious cemeteries of the region and spirit activity rises during celestial and astrological events. As the graveyard tour winds down, stay with us among the stones and souls to watch the eclipse.”52

Special eclipse foods, snacks and drinks marked the day. Several chain restaurants did their part with moon pies and eclipse-shaped pancakes.53 Hostess Snacks declared its Golden CupCakes “the official snack food of the solar eclipse.” Not to be outdone, Krispy Kreme introduced a first-ever chocolate-glazed doughnut for three days beginning on the 21st.54 Eclipse drinks came in more variety. Eclipse cocktails featured dark rum, gin, vodka or bourbon, black raspberry liqueur, grenadine, a slice of orange or ripe olives among the many recipes offered by foodnetwork.com, mrbostondrinks.com, simplydarrling.com, absolutdrinks.com and many other sites. Beyond alcohol, there was immense flexibility as to what constituted an “eclipse drink.” Regardless of the specific recipe, one could always use a small Total Solar Eclipse Commemorative Shot Glass, perhaps printed with “I Was in The Path,” “I Witnessed Totality” or “I Got My Kicks On” ($9.99 plus $3.95 shipping).

Every big event needs distinctive music and there was no shortage of playlist suggestions, many not eclipse-focused but featuring darkness or weather of one sort or another. Coal Chamber’s “Tyler’s Song” topped The Guardian’s list of ten best eclipse songs.55 Ultimateclassicrock.com listed 13 songs for the eclipse. Space.com provided a list of 56 songs which didn’t include Carly Simon’s 1972 “You’re So Vain,” whose narcissistic subject flies his group to Nova Scotia to see a total eclipse of the sun (https://www.space.com/37823-total-solar-eclipse-playlist.html).

There were also recommendations for movies, books and television viewing. Several sources reminded the media-consuming public that eclipses have supplied important moments in both viewing and reading for decades. Eclipse movies provided several entertainment options. NPR prompted that eclipses have been plot devices as agents of change since 1907’s The Eclipse through Bing Crosby as Hank Morgan in the 1949 version of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the crucifixion scene in the 1961 religious epic Barabbas and 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors.56 Entertainment Weekly, which in preparation for the Big Event had rounded up its favorite literary eclipses in ten novels,57 offered the “most meaningful eclipses in movies or on TV,” from Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto to Avatar’s “Day of the Black Sun,” Heroes, and The Twilight.58 Even Space.com gathered its top total solar eclipse movies and television scenes, among them Disney’s Fantasia: The Rite of Spring (1940), The Watcher in the Woods (1980), Ladyhawke (1985), and a 1993 Simpsons episode, “Marge vs. The Monorail.”59 Some of these were available for streaming or through Netflix, which experienced a ten percent drop in viewers during the eclipse itself.60 Those reading the three serious non-fiction eclipse books recommended by the New York Times61 might not have been watching Netflix to begin with.

Darkness at (a little past) noon. Venus hides just behind the trees. Photo courtesy Devin Henry.

Looking Up, Watching Out

A joint study by the University of Michigan and NASA released in late September estimated that “88 percent of American adults—about 215 million people—watched the solar eclipse, either in person or electronically,” far more than voted in the 2016 presidential election or watched the 2017 Super Bowl. Of these, the study claimed that 154 million, about 70 percent of American adults, “had actually ventured outside to watch in person” while 61 million viewed it electronically.62 Any adults-only estimate omits vast numbers of children who watched as well. The study was reported as a measure of “unparalleled” American engagement with a “science-oriented event,” which strikes me as wishful thinking that ignores all the social and media pressures to watch the Big Event. Still, the count becomes another quantification placing the eclipse in perspective.

Few media platforms ignored the eclipse, stimulating much of the public to join in. Indeed, a critical element of any Big Event is to be noticed, and for individuals engaged in the eclipse, calling attention to one’s connection or one’s products was essential. The number and variety of articles and media happenings before the eclipse did not seem to be balanced by their lower numbers afterwards, although I cannot document this with a count. I believe this is due partly to the dreadful events which soon followed, and partly to relentless news cycles. But it is also related to a decline in post-event commercial motivations and a certain deflation in some quarters after hyped expectations were not reached. For example, David Meade made end-of-the-world-on-September-23 predictions, in which he claimed that a planet named Nibiru would crash into Earth creating all sorts of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tidal waves.63 I found it unprofessional for The Washington Post to give this story prominent space, but it seems the name of the game is to get as much attention as possible. Fortunately, September 23 passed without planetary collision or signs of Armageddon. As for the Rapture, I predict we’ll still be waiting a while.

The spectacular blazing corona at totality, August 21, 2017. Photo courtesy David Toot.

Eclipse-philia

This might have been called the “Superlative Total Solar Eclipse” for all the “most” categories associated with it: most watched live and online or on television, most watched after the event, most photographed, most shared, most scientifically examined, most commercialized, most hyped, most anticipated, most described, most explained, most media covered, most written about, most warned about, most special, cause of the greatest mass migration for a natural event, stimulus for the most sales, greatest, largest, most, most, most. To science writer and theoretical astrophysicist Ethan Siegel, on a scale of 1 to 10, “if a partial is a 5 and an annular is a 9, then a total eclipse must be 1,000,000.”64 Americans are drawn to exceptionality, which is sometimes a variety of self-congratulatory exaggeration.

Writing just after the eclipse Siegal reported “ten surprises during totality,” among them the pinkish corona, a red horizon, a glimpse of an earth-monitoring satellite and a temperature drop of 17 degrees in his location. He expects that the 2024 eclipse will be longer and darker than the one he had just seen.65

No one associated with these celestial moments surpasses the fanatical eclipse chasers, those “umbraphiles,” shadow-lovers afflicted with “umbraphillia” who “bask in the moon’s shadow,” seeking “that hole in the sky.”66, 67 These passionate, articulate individuals travel the world to witness every eclipse possible. At eclipse-chasers.com, an Eclipse Chaser’s Log tracks 378 individuals, their total and annular eclipses and time spent in totality.68 Co-leader with 34, University of Arizona astronomer Glenn Schneider is “addicted to the glory and majesty of total solar eclipses.” His favorite? “Any one of them is one of the top events in my life. The one that I’m seeing at the moment is the best one.”69 Co-leading chaser Jay Pasachoff, an astronomer at Williams College, saw his first total eclipse during his first year at Harvard in 1959 and prefers grounded viewings. “. . . seeing one from an airplane is nothing compared with what it’s like being outdoors.”70 “Almost psychedelic,” “jaw-droppingly beautiful,” and “spectacularly moving” are phrases from David Baron, a chaser since 1998 in Aruba. “It gives you an incredible connection to the universe,” said Baron.71 How does one mark this connection? For some umbraphiles it is with a special drink, “an egg cream—a concoction of seltzer water, chocolate syrup, and milk.72 Cheers.

Astronomer Donald Liebenberg, the “King of Totality,” saw his first in 1954; now he has bagged 26 total solar eclipses from the U.S. to Turkey, Libya, Easter Island, Uganda (for a 20-second eclipse) and other locales, resulting in the record for time spent in totality: two hours, 35 minutes and 13.7 seconds. Seventy-four of these minutes came in 1973, as he flew in the new Concorde across North Africa following the moon’s shadow.73, 74

Psychologist Kate Russo, a total solar eclipse chaser who has seen 10, studies reactions to eclipses, but not exactly with scientific neutrality. “It is my connection with the universe. I sense euphoria, and excitement, and loss afterward when it goes away.”75

Anthony Aveni of Colgate University, the preeminent “cultural astronomer,” straddles the technical, astronomical world and the terrestrial human world. For decades he has given the fullest possible astronomical, historical and cultural descriptions of these heavenly events in books, articles and lectures. His informative In the Shadow of the Moon: The Science, Magic, and Mystery of Solar Eclipses was published with the eclipses of 2017 and 2024 in mind. By now he has seen “only” nine total solar eclipses, but understands the obsession with them. “This is far from record breaking, and any amount of time is never enough.”76

David and Kim Toot celebrate totality, when eclipse glasses are no longer needed. Photo courtesy Robert Myers.

The Eclipse Eclipsed

Totality was short lived. Before the penumbra fully passed, astronomers were packing their equipment; people emptied the stadiums and hundreds of thousands of travelers headed home, some in a state like a “hangover.”77 Normal life quickly resumed. Astronomers analyzed their data and photos; reporters filed all manner of eclipse stories; social media heated up with images. On the internet, Google searches for “eyes hurt,” “vision loss” and “eye doctor” spiked, as many “freaked out” over possible viewing consequences. But few reports verified any cases of eye injury.78 Everyone went back to work. Netflix viewing returned to normal. The Great American Eclipse became briefly the Great American Memory, marveled at, digested, savored, recalled. Some began making plans for the next total solar eclipse in the United States on April 8, 2024, for which eclipse maps were already on sale ($10 to $29.99 depending on size at greatamericaneclipse.com). Then dire natural events claimed everyone’s attention.

Four days later, what had been a peaceful cosmic pause that diverted Americans from political, class and racial tensions turned into a consuming national disaster. Category 4 Hurricane Harvey came ashore in Texas, claiming lives and soaking southeastern Texas with unprecedented rainfall. The long anticipated Great American Cultural Eclipse yielded to the unexpected Great American Historic Deluge, “the most extreme rain event in U.S. history.”79 This was only the beginning of earthly nature trials. Harvey was followed by Irma, then Category 4 Jose, which was only days behind Irma but turned north without threatening the U.S. mainland. Hurricane Maria ravaged Dominica, St. Croix and the-already-crippled Puerto Rico, where 3.4 million were without power, and many others were without fuel and potable water, claiming even more lives. So many hurricanes of this magnitude had never swirled from the Atlantic in such rapid succession.80, 81

Meanwhile, wildfires throughout the Pacific Northwest covered a vast area with smoke, which air currents slowly carried eastward. Off the west coast of Mexico, a “monster” earthquake, the strongest in a century, claimed dozens of lives. In Mexico City another earthquake killed hundreds on September 19. The natural disasters just didn’t let up. These calamities preoccupied the nation for days of buildup before each hurricane struck. There was 24-hour coverage during their arrival, followed by days and weeks of recovery time. The wildfires showed no sign of abating. Nature seemed to have gone wild, heralding to some extremists the End of Times.82

Now the eclipse has receded still farther in the cultural rearview mirror, its grandeur replaced by mundane concerns, distinctively American. Anxiety over the possibly widespread use of unsafe eclipse glasses proliferated into the “shady shades debacle.” Lawsuits and threats of lawsuits were the order of the day.83 In efforts to quantify the collective business costs of so many people taking time from work to watch the eclipse, early guestimates arrived at the staggering figure of $700-million, perhaps even more, due to “lost productivity.” This sum echoed throughout the mediasphere on cbsnews.com, msn.com, nbc.com, reuters.com, space.com, vanityfair.com, time.com, nypost.com, usnews.com, insidesales.com, ibtimes.com, forbes.com, fortune.com, marketwatch.com, nola.com, Twitter and many other sites days before the Big Event. Another calculation reduced this to a mere $72- million.84, 85 Only in the United States, where work is especially sacred, would this concern be so prominent.

Perhaps there was lost revenue, but there were also financial gains. SunBlast Mobile Tans in Hernando, Mississippi, far from totality, tweeted, “We will be closed Monday! Got your glasses yet?” #totalsolareclipse, but Solar Eclipse Tanning of Westfield, New York, was open. For South Carolina, the eclipse brought an extra $269-million in bookings and expenditures from the more than one million people who traveled to or within the state for the occasion, according to the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. Hotel occupancy rates of 96 percent for Sunday and 95 percent for Monday set records.86 This is mobile, commercial America and who wants to miss the big party?

In many ways, it was the ironies of 2017’s eclipse that stand out. In cultures of the past, eclipses were associated with fear of the unknown, anxieties conveyed through mythology and linked with the influence of religious specialists. Its moment could be predicted accurately by a powerful few and used to their advantage, or attached to mythological forces and apocalyptic anticipation.87, 88, 89 The destructive August-September storms, wildfires, and earthquakes of 2017 were described in terms such as “monster,” “roar,” “rage,” “savage,” “a low howl,” once reserved for eclipses as if they were life forms.

August’s total solar eclipse, precisely well-known through celestial geometry and modern astronomy, reversed this cosmic role. It was the most rational, well understood, democratically appreciated and commercially exploited event in an otherwise chaotic, irrational world. Whatever happened before and after August 21, awe—not fear—understanding—not mythology—were hallmarks of the Great American Cultural Eclipse.

~~~

Robert Myers, novice eclipse chaser and anthropologist at Alfred University, dates his fascination with total solar eclipses to a farm near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on March 7, 1970. He counts the annular eclipse of May 10, 1994, in Alfred, NY, along with August 21, 2017, as his big celestial moments. He looks forward to April 8, 2024.

David Toot, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Director of the Stull Observatory, Alfred University, scientific technical adviser par excellence, organized our trip to totality.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Maria D. Vesperi for her editorial acumen, to Devin Henry and Nicole Erwin for remarkable photographs as well as to Katey Burke and Hope Childers for examples of road warnings and eclipse products.

Endnotes

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  1. Janet Eastman. “On the Market: Homes for Sale in the Solar Eclipse Path of Totality (Photos).” The Oregonian. August 19, 2017. http://www.oregonlive.com/hg/index.ssf/2017/08/eclipse_home_sale_path_totalit.html.
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  4. Seaside Shadows Haunted History Tours. “Seaside Shadows’ Solar Eclipse Mystic Graveyard Stroll.” August 21, 2017. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/seaside-shadows-solar-eclipse-mystic-graveyard-stroll-tickets-36983647084#.
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  1. Conception De León. “Missing the Eclipse? Read All about It.” New York Times. August 4, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/books/review/newsbook-solar-eclipse.html?mcubz=1&_r=0
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  6. Glenn Schneider. University of Arizona faculty page. August 30, 2017. http://nicmosis.as.arizona.edu:8000/UMBRAPHILLIA.html.
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  8. Bill Kraemer. Eclipse-Chasers.com webmaster and site maintainer. 2017. https://www.eclipse-chasers.com/.
  9. Nell Greenfieldboyce. “Go See It, the Eclipse Chasers Urge. ‘Your First Time is Always Special.’”
  10. Jason Kersten. “The New Yorkers Tied for the Total-Solar-Eclipse Record.” “Dept. of Superlatives. Totally.” The New Yorker. The Talk of the Town. August 28, 2017: 28, 30. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/08/28/the-new-yorkers-tied-for-the-total-solar-eclipse-record.
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  1. Jason Samenow. “Harvey Marks the Most Extreme Rain Event in U.S. History.” Washington Post. August 29, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2017/08/29/harvey-marks-the-most-extreme-rain-event-in-u-s-history/?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-main_extreme-weather-1245pm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.43fa5ae24acc.
  2. Chris Dolce and Brian Donegan. “Irma’s Notable Extremes: All the Benchmarks It Has Hit So Far.” The Weather Channel. September 9, 2017. https://www.wunderground.com/news/hurricane-irma-extremes-records.
  3. Marc Santora, Henry Fountain and Vivian Yee. “Irma’s Fearsome Winds Reach Florida Shores, With Full Strike Yet to Come.” New York Times. September 9, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/09/us/irmas-fearsome-winds-reach-florida-shores-with-full-strike-yet-to-come.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=span-ab-top-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news.
  4. Henry Fountain. “Apocalyptic Thoughts Amid Nature’s Chaos? You Could Be Forgiven.” New York Times. September 8, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/08/us/hurricane-irma-earthquake-fires.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0
  5. Heather Murphy. “Shades of Noir: My Hunt for an Eclipse Glasses Villain.” New York Times. September 9, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/09/science/eclipse-glasses-recalls.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fscience&action=click&contentCollection=science&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=3&pgtype=sectionfront
  6. Stacey Leasca. “Solar Eclipse Will Cost Employers a Staggering Amount of Money In Lost Productivity.” Forbes.com. August 19, 2017.   https://www.forbes.com/sites/sleasca/2017/08/19/solar-eclipse-economy/#7f523e3732af
  7. Ken Krogue. “How Much Did the Solar Eclipse Cost U.S. Sales Teams?” August 22, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenkrogue/2017/08/22/how-much-did-the-solar-eclipse-cost-u-s-sales-teams/#57c518a16ef7
  8. Maayan Schechter. “Solar Eclipse: Economic Impact in South Carolina is $269 Million.” The Greenville News. September 20, 2017. http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/news/2017/09/20/solar-eclipse-economic-impact-south-carolina-269-m/686257001/
  9. Anthony Aveni. In the Shadow of the Moon: The Science, Magic, and Mystery of Solar Eclipses.
  10. Tyler Nordgren. Sun, Moon, Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets (New York: Basic Books, 2016).
  11. Jonah Engel Bromwich. “The Demons of Darkness Will Eat Men, and Other Solar Eclipse Myths.” New York Times. August 18, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/18/science/solar-eclipse-myths.html?mcubz=1

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