The opposition of the paths was striking. The center of the solar eclipse’s path of totality, heading to the southeast out to sea across Bulls Bay. And almost 28 years ago,coming in from the Atlantic Ocean on a northwest heading, Hurricane Hugo, the point of highest winds and storm surge also crossing Bulls Bay.
A total eclipse has its central shadow (umbra) on the earth – the 2017 eclipse had an umbra shadow with a width of 70 miles. Hugo’s eye width was also in that range when it made landfall. The 2017 eclipse had Awendaw in the bullseye again.
I wondered about local indigenous people along the coast (and elsewhere), and how they experienced this spectacular event in the past. The experience surely invoked a mix of awe and fear when the totality struck, and possibly entered into the people’s cosmology. Some of the earliest documented total eclipses have fascinating descriptions: in Syria around 1200 BC “the sun was put to shame”; in 1300 BC in China “three flames ate the sun.” It seems highly unlikely that local Native Americans could predict eclipses, and though the saros cycle was known by ancient astronomers, precision only came with Edmond Halley’s prediction of the 1715 eclipse. After Halley, none of the predicted solar eclipses were more scientifically important than the 1919 eclipse expedition to test Einstein’s theory of relativity. Millions of Americans and I were the beneficiaries of the 2017 prediction for “the great American Eclipse”.
I decided to not take photos of the eclipse, and instead to just “experience totality”. My neighborhood would be the venue, and initially I planned to leave an eclipse party at my friends the Arnau’s. Their long dock out to the Intracoastal Waterway offered the vista I sought, and I wandered out within thirty minutes of totality. Darkness grew to the northwest, and whether this was the approaching umbra shadow or a thunderstorm became clear with distant rumblings.
The weather forecast for cloud cover was correct, but after first contact the conditions during the partial remained fairly clear in our viewing corridor. A sun dog shone during the partial eclipse. Clouds intruded as we approached totality, the suspense compounded by thunderstorm clouds crowding in from the mainland. An opening came minutes before totality, and as the sun was whittled down to a sliver the play of light was mesmerizing. My location was forty yards out on the dock, surrounded by marsh. I had heard that the color of marsh grass is different every day of the year, and the Spartina rapidly underwent a color transformation until the shadow extinguished the light. My breath was taken away by the totality – it appeared to ignite in an instance revealing the million degree corona. I searched for the visible four planets in the darkened sky but clouds did not permit, yet our totality window remained throughout the brief but profound and ineffable experience. A 360 degree sunset graced our horizons, and the light show was punctuated with bolts of lightning flaring across the dark storm clouds to the northwest. A red flare on the right edge of the sun heralded the totality’s end, and the return of daylight.
It was over, and clouds moved in quickly to cover the remaining partial eclipse. The processing of the event and heightened perceptions continued into the following day. That next morning, the backlit dawn clouds over Bulls Bay were dazzling. Other colors and sounds were likewise vibrant: the sheen of a dolphin’s torso as it exhaled right below me at the landing pier, and the call of a pileated woodpecker. There might be another totality in my future, but most likely not. Yet there are other experiences I have had in nature that also occurred only once, and may remain singular: the mating of rattlesnakes under a full moon, a needlefish skipping across the bow of Kingfisher, a pod of dolphins in close proximity escorting Kingfisher across Bulls Bay. These were all unpredictable events and observed only when present in those places and moments. I will seek future singular experiences in nature.
Postscript: For a glimpse into the American 2017 eclipse experience, enjoy this short NPR film Eclipse 2017: One Nation Under the Sun.