Everyone's eclipse: America comes together in the moon's shadow

Americans rarely come together to share a single event anymore, and when they do political divisions often take center stage. But on Monday, millions of Americans set aside their differences to share in the wonder of a celestial event.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Members of the media watch the solar eclipse at the White House in Washington Aug. 21.

After all the hype and all the media attention and the lyrical first-hand accounts about the power of a total eclipse, there is just this: a dark circle in the sky where the sun should be. A luminescent ring that shimmers in strange ways. Stars and planets emerging in a twilight sky at 10:19 in the morning. And thousands of people in a hushed awe, giving a collective gasp, as together they watch a sky that seems completely unworldly.

For a few hours on Monday, millions of Americans across the country set aside the political rancor and social tension that have dominated public discourse in past months and weeks to witness the Great American Eclipse – together.

“That’s what makes it so special,” says Mike Kentrianakis, solar eclipse project manager for the American Astronomical Society, who has seen 10 total solar eclipses. “It’s an astronomical phenomenon that’s a shared human experience.”

The shadow of the moon doesn’t discriminate. During a solar eclipse, everything – cities and mountainsides; humans, animals, and plants; Republicans and Democrats; Red Sox and Yankees fans – in the path of totality goes dark, and anyone can look up and see the deep black sphere, ringed in light, where the sun used to be.

A total solar eclipse is “a deeply human experience that makes you feel connected to other people alive today, part of a continuum of humanity – connected to the past and to the future,” says eclipse chaser David Baron. “A total eclipse reminds you of your insignificance. It’s this sense of being humbled. Frankly, I think we all could use that.”

Indeed, as the moon began to slide in front of the sun, a quiet fell over the crowd gathered on Orchardale Farm in Hopkinsville, Ky. As totality began, at 1:24 local time, there were cheers. Hoots. Hollers. And then an electric hush fell over the crowd. As the sun reemerged, people turned to new friends they had just met that day, exchanged goodbyes, and vowed to find a way to catch the next eclipse.

A rare celestial treat

The Earth, moon, and sun haven’t aligned for a total solar eclipse on the mainland United States since 1979. For such a rare event to occur, the moon’s orbit must cross the Earth’s orbital plane at a close enough distance that it completely obscures the sun, while the planet is tilted in just the right way for the US to be aligned with the sun and moon as well. A solar eclipse can be seen somewhere on Earth about every 18 months, on average. But the moon’s shadow last slid from coast-to-coast in the United States in 1918. 

“The geometry is almost ideal for being accessible to many millions of Americans,” says Michael Zeiler, a cartographer who created the Great American Eclipse website. “Over half of the nation can reach the path within a day’s drive.”

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
People watch the total solar eclipse Aug. 21 from Clingmans Dome, which at 6,643 feet (2,025m) is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn. Location coordinates for this image are 35º33'24" N, 83º29'46" W.

And drive they did, though fears of hours-long traffic jams on highways leading toward the path of totality this morning proved largely unfounded.

Mary Ludwig of La Crescent, Minn., drove 15 hours to Kentucky with her husband and three of her children, whom she homeschools. Mrs. Ludwig planned the trip as both an educational and spiritual experience for her children. The family spent Sunday night watching shooting stars from sleeping bags atop the family van, which was scrawled with eclipse-related vocabulary. She hopes they see the eclipse as an opportunity to step away from short-term, negative human experiences and to ponder “the bigger picture of life” and to “come together in a positive community.”

A woman who describes her self as the “Voodoo Bone Lady” traveled from New Orleans to Kentucky with a Mandarin rat snake named Damballah to conduct a ritual "for peace and for unity.”

“Over the past few months, it has saddened me the way this country is going, with all the racism, the hatred, the bigotry,” she says.

In Salem, Ore., Rick D’Alli traveled all the way from Gainesville, Fla., to Oregon to view the eclipse with his friend Jon Fink, with whom he used to work in the NASA labs in the early 1980s.

For him, the experience is amplified by its collective nature. “It’s about seeing so many people with kids of all ages, ethnicities of all ages, brought together to experience, together, a miracle of nature that so trivializes the political theater,” Mr. D’Alli says.

A political reprieve

This isn’t the first eclipse to bring a polarized nation together, says Mr. Baron, a journalist and author of “American Eclipse.” In researching the 1878 eclipse, which passed over the American West, he says he was struck by many parallels to present-day America.

In 1878, he notes, America was still fighting over the last presidential election, in which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes had won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote, and there were charges of a fraudulent presidency.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
A woman views the solar eclipse from Times Square in Manhattan, N.Y., Aug. 21. Location coordinates for this image are 40.7589° N, 73.9851°. W.

“The nation was bitterly divided, but here was a shared event that was completely nonpolitical that the whole country got behind,” Baron says. “I can’t claim that it had some long-lasting effect on politics, but it certainly provided a welcome distraction and a chance for Americans to unite around a shared moment of joy and excitement.”

With Monday’s eclipse, Baron and others have highlighted the proximity and mixing of “tribes” that is, by necessity, happening – especially as sold-out hotel rooms force travelers to book Airbnbs, camp on people’s land, and stay in their spare rooms. New Yorkers traveled to Hopkinsville, Ky; liberals from Boulder and Denver drove up to rural Wyoming.

Ahead of the eclipse, Baron told the Monitor, “It’s going to force that contact around something that will be shared, and it’s hard to believe it’s controversial in any way.”

Some people organized gatherings specifically with that sort of mixing in mind. Ross Matteson, a sculptor from Washington who owns a small piece of land in central Idaho, has been planning an event for more than a year to bring artists, academics, and scientists to mix with his rural ranching and farming neighbors in Idaho.

“Everybody can learn from everybody,” says Mr. Matteson.

United in awe of the universe

Eclipse chasers, also called “umbraphiles,” struggle to find the words for the power this event can hold.

“It’s almost as if you’re lifted off the surface of the Earth,” says Mr. Zeiler, who has seen eight total eclipses in his life, from the equatorial rainforests of Gabon to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. “Your spirit is elevated by the incredible beauty of the sight, and you feel a stronger connection to the universe, and a lot of the problems we have on Earth seem petty once you’ve had that experience.”

A solar eclipse is so much more than a spectacular sight, says Mike Simmons, founder and president of Astronomers Without Borders, who has seen seven total solar eclipses. “A total eclipse is not so much something that you see, it’s something that happens to you.”

“Whether it’s the shadow sweeping in and leaping over you, or the eeriness of the strange light that precedes the eclipse before things go dark and the stars come out, or the incredibly black-looking hole where the sun used to be with this pearlescent sort of corona around it that no camera can capture, or the animals that think it’s nighttime and start making noise and coming out, or the yells and whoops of the people around, it’s an experience which cannot be simulated or understood,” he says. “It’s like traveling to another planet in a Star Wars movie, suddenly.”

Solar eclipses aren’t the only celestial sights that capture universal attention. Astronomy overall transcends divides, says Mr. Simmons. And that’s the premise behind his organization, Astronomers Without Borders, which connects skygazers from nations as disparate as the United States, Iran, Ghana, Bulgaria, Brazil, and the Philippines.

Around the world, anyone can look up and see the same sky, the same moon, and the same sun, just from a different vantage point, Simmons says. And that can lend a unifying perspective.

“We're getting a different view of the same thing. This shows us that we're on a sphere, a little speck amidst everything, but we are really in the same place,” he says. “Earth seems like a big place to us, but it's not really such a big place after all.”

That's the impression that the moment left on Gretchen Millard after totality passed the state fairgrounds in Salem, Ore.

“It was so much more amazing than I expected,” she says. “It was so surreal.” The experience, she says, made her realize that “this world is bigger than us. And this world is going to keep going. It’s bigger than our petty stuff. Bigger than us.”

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