In 1979, ABC News journalist Frank Reynolds covered the last eclipse over the United States on live television. When it was over he said, “So that’s it, the last solar eclipse to be seen on this continent in this century.” He went on to say, “Not until August 21, 2017 will another eclipse be visible from North America. That’s 38 years from now.”
Now that eclipse is over too.
From where I live, the moon was going to eclipse 96% of the sun. And while that four percent may not sound like a lot, Annie Dillard in her essay, “Total Eclipse,” compared a partial eclipse to a total eclipse by saying it’s the difference between flying in an airplane and falling out of one. So, I left early Monday morning for South Carolina to know what it felt like to fall out of the sky.
I wanted to be early. I wanted to miss the traffic. I wanted to find a special place inside the Brookgreen Gardens where I could photograph, watch, and be awed by the eclipse. I wanted the eclipse to live up to the hype, to exceed expectation, to be transformative. And how could it not, I reasoned, as I rolled down Highway 17 at four o’clock in the morning. After all, in the entire solar system, of all the planets and dwarf planets with more than 180 moons and counting, the moon, our moon, is the only moon in the entire solar system that when passed in front of the disk of the sun is, relative to the distance of the sun, the same size as the sun. To put it another way, the surface of the Earth is the only place in the known universe where a complete solar eclipse can be viewed.
To not make that littlest bit of effort to be in totality would snub a nose at our extraordinary place in the universe. I would be the wise man who saw the star in the East but decided the trip just wasn’t worth it. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that going for totality was a pilgrimage, a marriage of science and creation, something only God could orchestrate, something only science could explain, something only faith and art could articulate.
But I was driving through thunderstorms and hard rain. When a bolt of lightning rippled across the sky, I could see low-lying clouds with dark edges. The windshield wipers pushed sheets of water away as fast as they could, and as fast as they did, the water was replaced. I looked at the clock. 4:30AM. I could turn around, go back home, get back in bed, and declare that I had tried and it wasn’t meant to be. But I would never do that. To not try, to give up and call it quits would be like betting against a scheduled miracle. And even if I had to watch the eclipse underneath a great flood through the windows of my truck, I was going to be there.
Once I passed into South Carolina, the rain eased up, and to my surprise, the traffic remained light. I started another Planetary Society podcast and by the time it was finished, I had arrived in Murrells Inlet. The sky hinted at morning, and instead of driving straight to the gardens, which I knew didn’t open for several more hours, I followed signs pointing to The Waterfront.
The sky was red, with heavy, low clouds and tall, wispy drifters. It was a perfect cloudscape for photography. But not today. Please not today! Today I wanted not a single cloud in the sky. Nowhere. Eclipse chasers tell horror stories about the perfect cloudless sky, when right before totality a single mammoth cloud comes out of nowhere and ruins the view. A cloud-filled horizon made me feel for certain that my hopes were doomed. The boardwalk, the guys working on their boats, the four guys throwing crab pots over the side of the dock, and the lady with as fancy of a camera as I had made me feel a little bit better. The great herons and egrets stalking through marshy grasses, the exposed oyster beds, and that sometimes foul, boggy-water smell, if nothing else, the trip was about this world, the surface of this sphere, and not that great mystery overhead. That’s what I told myself watching the red sky reflecting off the calm waters. But I knew today wasn’t about what happened here. I was fooling myself; preparing myself for disappointment. If the eclipse was viewable at all, I told myself, it would be a bonus.
I don’t lie to myself well. I wish I did. I wish I could believe that an early morning sunrise photo was all the day needed. But this day, of all the days in the last 38 years in North America, needed something more. Today was about that separation between day and night, when day is cut short and night is fleeting. It was a near perfect sunrise, and maybe if I stayed on the docks long enough it would be a perfect sunset too. But none of that mattered. Today was about folding an extra night and day cycle into a single day. A sort of Good Friday reminder that, yes, the world can go dark in the middle of the day. Today was all about those precious two minutes of eclipse.
I left the waterfront at Murrells Inlet and drove the few miles south to Brookgreen Gardens. I wasn’t surprised to find a few cars waiting at the gate. One man was walking from car to car. I thought that maybe he was an employee checking tickets. He wore a blue, button-down shirt and walked with the confidence of bureaucracy. He approached my truck, and I rolled down the window. “Hey,” he said, “did you know that you had to preorder your tickets for today?” I said I did, and he started off angry about the park not letting the public know. I told him that it was on their website, and he accused them of being sloppy for not putting it in the paper. I agreed with him. I asked him if he knew what time they were going to be letting people in the garden. “Oh, some so and so said at 9:30.” That was still an hour away so I thought I’d come back. Before I pulled off, I called the angry man back over to my truck. “Hey,” I said. “So, I’ve got one extra ticket here. It looks like you’re here with your wife but at least it will get you halfway. Maybe you can pick up another ticket from someone else.” Before I could even get the ticket out of the center console of my truck, he was pushing money through my window. “Thanks,” he said with new optimism.
Six hours later I will bump into the man inside the garden. He and his wife will be happily enjoying a glass of wine and listening to the band. His entire demeanor will have changed.
I went nearly directly across the street to Huntington Beach State Park, paid five dollars for admission, and explored a few bird and marsh trails. I sat at the end of the marsh walk for a good long time listening to a bearded, portly hippie talk about cameras. His earlobes hung low with round, circled holes punched through them, and his beard was tied with rubber bands at his chin. He liked the old cameras, the old film, the days of Fuji and Kodak. I thought for a moment he might break out in Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, but instead he started talking about the filming work he did with the Olsen twins. “You know Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen?” He didn’t wait for an answer. I wanted him to pull his shirt down so his stomach wasn’t showing. “I used to work with them. Nice girls. That was in the days when you didn’t know if you were filming with one kind of film or the other and you had to wait because if you set up for one kind of film but were given another you’d have to break down the entire set and rearrange everything for the lighting for the specific kind of film you had. And then digital came along and it just changed everything. I mean like, overnight. Just one day we arrived on set and it was digital. We were like, ‘what the hell.’ But nobody cared. Nobody asked us. They don’t give a shit about you out there.” He stopped and breathed. I wondered if he was angry at me because I had a digital camera.
I was at the end of a boardwalk over top of some of the best saltwater marsh and bird lands I had ever seen. Puppy drum and flounder were chasing the mud minnows and finger mullet, cranes and egrets swooped down, pecking at the fish, a storm cloud rumbled in the distance, scouring fingers of lightening in all direction, and all I was doing was killing time, waiting on the pilgrimage towards the eclipse; but in the meantime, I had to listen to this guy. He wouldn’t leave or stop talking or pull his shirt over his bloated, exposed, hairy belly. He was like the troll underneath the bridge who came up for air and discovered he was lonely.
His next homily was about the B movies he worked with – B movies that launched the careers of some of “today’s finest actors.” He worked with the most successful B movie director of all time – of course. “There’s such a thing as a successful B movie director?” I asked. And immediately I wished I hadn’t. “Oh yeah,” he said, oblivious to the fact that I was slightly making fun of him. And then he named this director and that director and the movies they made and how much money they made making movies like Carnosaur and Cannibal! The Musical and Guyver: Dark Hero.
This is the hardest part of being a Christian, I believe. Loving your enemies. And this guy was my enemy. Every word he uttered injured me. His relentless monologue. His know-it-all, the-way-things-used-to-be attitude. I would’ve found his company more amendable had he attacked me with knives. And why now? Why talk and talk and talk endlessly when I’m at one of the most scenic places on the East Coast. I’m not prone to violence or homicidal thoughts, but I will confess that I looked towards the approaching thunderstorm with a sort of hopeful, prayerful posture. And God must have heard my prayer. The sky cracked open, a jolt fell to the ground, and an electric compression thumbed against my chest. The troll was afraid of lightening and without even saying goodbye, he left. Make the lightning flash and scatter them, prayed King David.
When the thunderstorm suddenly and without apparent cause dispersed from the skies, I knew God had answered my prayers just as he answered King David’s. But then, maybe God was tired of listening to him as well. Take away from me the noise of your songs, says the Lord.
I stayed on the end of the boardwalk and photographed birds for another hour before I decided it was time to go to the garden.
The row of cars lined into Brookgreen Garden like ants following a well-beat-down path. We dutifully parked where we were told and then started exploring. My immediate goal was to find a place to photograph the eclipse. I was hopeful now. It was sprinkling rain but the clouds were intermittent. Shades of blue could be glimpsed if you squinted your eyes just right. I carried my camera ready to explore. What makes a great eclipse foreground? Should it be the crowd? Do I look for a pretty tree? And then I walked directly up to a sundial sculpture. It was as if the universe was saying, “Here it is.” The irony of a sundial during the middle of an eclipse. But I thought it might be too obvious; everyone would gather around the sundial for the sake of irony. So, I kept the idea in the back of my mind and explored the garden.
The garden was inexhaustible. A sculpture of nude women in boxes caught my attention. The truth seemed so apparent. Women placed in metal crates, left with nothing to cover themselves: not a display as much as it was a trap – cultural bias saying stay here, this is your spot, you are an exhibit. I put my camera on the tripod, gave a shallow depth of field to bring into focus a yellow daisy, which left the women slightly out of focus, and got the shot. The women were now not only being paraded around nude but were supplanted by the foreground. I hoped my photo was an extension of the artist’s intention.
There were other sculptures and reflecting pools and fountains. Underneath rowed live oaks were planted 60,000 caladiums. The branches knotted and gnarled allowing a canopy of Spanish moss to dangle like fruit. A little bronze boy stood on a chair grinning with buckteeth. Lush green foliage covered the ground and small palms stood like dressing screens. A metal lady stood beside stacked rocks. A woman with a bow pointed an arrow towards the west. The sculptures and garden seemed to never end. But it was getting close to time. The sun was mostly out. Solid patches of blue sky could be seen. I needed to return to the sundial, set up and wait for the eclipse.
To my surprise, no one else seemed to notice the futility of a sundial during an eclipse. I set up my tripod, attached my wide-angle lens, and took practice shots. There seemed to be more blue sky now, just patches of clouds. I was increasingly hopeful. But it would only take one patch, a single cloud, and behind me dark clouds clattered and squabbled like squirrels in an attic.
Then the obvious caught my attention. I looked east. Nothing. I looked west. Nothing more. I even looked north and south thinking maybe there was some anomaly taking place. But again, nothing in either direction. I put on my special-Amazon-ordered-eclipse glasses. The full disk of the sun was clearly visible but there was nothing else in the sky. Where was the moon? It was less than an hour before the eclipse was supposed to begin. Minutes really. And there wasn’t a moon in sight. Before I realized that the moon, for as large as it is, and as relatively close by as it is, was washed out by sunlight, I actually considered that maybe, just maybe, the moon forgot to show up.
I continued tinkering with my camera gear, every so often looking up at the sun with my glasses, when I noticed just the slightest slice of the sun missing. I don’t know what I expected to happen when the eclipse started, but I expected something. I looked around. A mom was playing catch with her son. The band continued to play Pink Floyd covers. The line at the drink kiosk was just as long as it had been. Even the moon traipsed silently across the disk of the sun, and not even the sun barked as the vagrant encroached on its domain. How could the heavens remain silent? How could everyone who had gathered to watch the event fail to notice the event had started? I felt what I imagine street preachers and attention seekers who wear sandwich boards announcing the imminent return of Christ must surely feel. I wanted to run around the garden, grab one person and then another, and tell them all, look up, look up.
Little by little the moon cobbled away at the perfect disk of the sun. A few people started to notice. And then more and more. Then the band stopped playing. The sun, even nearly two-thirds missing, seemed full strength. The cloud cover rolled by sometimes eschewing the event sometimes hampering our view. But with our eclipse glasses on, we could pierce through the clouds.
When the moon fully covered the sun, the crowd erupted in applause. An odd reception, I thought. Centuries ago, the same event would have terrified people. It would have been interpreted as a bad omen, premonition, the need for human sacrifice. Now we clap. But as soon as the collective cheer went out, the crowd became silent and still. No one moved. Even the children stopped running around. The breeze stopped. The ground and the trees and the faces of those standing near turned a sort of lifeless, brown olive. Everyone looked up with reverence, awe, fascination. Couples held hands, and parents picked up their children. Crickets started chirping and frogs sang their songs. I thought instantly of Paul’s passage, every knee should bend…every tongue should confess. People’s knees did bend and the earth itself silently confessed. Truly something greater and larger than ourselves was occurring. Sun flares and the corona haloed the invisible moon. It could all be explained with science and math; its meaning, though, required art and religion. The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves…groan inwardly.
The total eclipse ended with as much ado as when it started. The sun slowly came back into view; people felt the end of awe, packed up their chairs and coolers, started towards their cars and then drove home. That was it.
The next total solar eclipse in South Carolina will occur on March 30, 2052. I plan to be there.