The Moon touched the Sun:
An hour or so later, the light was noticeably dimming:
And becoming strange.
The Sun was switched off. So were all artificial lights, except the upward lighting on the tower.
My pictures are closer to what the mind sees than what a camera records. Sun and moon, especially: they are only half a degree wide (half the width of your little finger at arm’s length) but they are so important in our world that we think of them as much larger.
Along the west side of Furman University’s campus is a lake, whose northern end forks into two bays, and from the cape between them a straight artificial peninsula or causeway, maybe seventy yards long and seven or eight wide, runs out to a six-storey tower with a carillon of bells.
The peninsula and lake point west of south, toward the early-afternoon sun, indeed pretty close to 217°, the azimuth the sun would have at totality. So I had realized that from the tip of the peninsular we could see the eclipse over the lake, maybe reflected in it, or could step back and see it up beside the tower. Might we even see that elusive phenomenon, the shadow bands, on the water or on the white face of the tower?
The eclipse would be 63 degrees high, and anything that near to the zenith can seem almost vertical. A small advantage of the peninsula was that its banks are stone revetments, so we might sit on the grass with our feet over the edge.
First contact was at 1:09 PM by clocks on summer Eastern Daylight Time. That is really 12:09 by the more natural solar time, so the sun was at its highest in the south. The onset of totality was an hour and a half later, 2:38 EDT, and it lasted almost exactly two minutes.
(These times were for our South Carolina locality, latitude 34.93° north, longitude 82.44° west. This was a few miles north of the eclipse centerline, which passed between Clemson and a small town called Central. So Clemson University had seven more seconds of totality.)
People were trying to see the first contact, though the dent in the side of the Sun is initially too small to discern. And one of the rather few clouds happened to be over the sun. Minutes later, the cloud had moved, and the dent was just large enough to see; partial eclipse had begun.
Through the ninety minutes of waiting, unnoticeably at first and then quicker, the light dims; and the noteworthy changes crowd quicker.
This acceleration always happens, and this time it was almost panicky for me, because I had planned to mention calmly and minimally the things to be ready for, before they happened, perhaps depute people to watch for some of them, Venus, the approaching moon-shadow, Baily’s Beads, the Diamond Ring, the moment to drop their eye-protection and just look. Not only did time accelerate, but there were questions to answer and books to sign, and our party became mixed with others, and there were things I simply forgot to do. If there were shadow bands on the lake they were perhaps obscured by ripples, and I forgot to look behind me for them on the tower. The colors of false sunset were more than usually prominent, on low clouds around the horizon.
The yell of amazement at the burst into totality went up not only from us but from voices all around the lake.
To get there
Ever since Tilly and I left America in March of 2001 we had said we would return in 2017 to see friends and the eclipse. South Carolina wasn’t the part of the path with the very best chance of clear sky, or with the longest duration of totality – if you were serious about those you went to Wyoming or Illinois – but there was no doubt we would be in Greenville.
We’d be there only for eclipse day and parts of two others. A tight time into which to fit faces we might never see again; fitting them, as it were, around the face of the transformed sun.
The easiest eclipse I ever got to was the other one that crossed Greenville, because I was living there: May 1984 (the “broken-ring” eclipse, a borderline case between annular and total). Usually the tale of getting to an eclipse, in places like Mongolia, Java, the Faroe Islands, is far bulkier than the tale of the eclipse itself. This time the travel was simple, flight from London to Durham, N.C., drive by my son Roland from there, and we were hospitably lodged in the house of Professor Bill Brantley, who got me started in all this. Yet the getting to the spot where we stood under the eclipse still seems a long tale.
In March of this year I began emailing. I imagined a picnic-like reunion, a few of us on the avenue of the Furman campus or some other grassy place, relaxing (on deck chairs, if such could be found) and watching the eclipse if clouds allowed. Response was slow, people were on holiday or the thing was too far in the future.
I learned (from Kathleen) that the Roper Mountain science center and the astronomy club based there would be holding eclipse activities; and then (from Debbie) that Furman University was planning a huge “guided viewing presentation” in its football stadium. Eclipse day happened to be the day before classes began, so it was the traditional day for students to arrive, settle in their housing, be oriented and advised by professors. (This was such a complication that I wondered whether universities, though unable to shift the date of the eclipse, would have been wise to shift the dates of their terms.) There would be intensive reorganization, so that the whole university community could be encouraged to gather for the once-in-a-lifetime experience; the public, too, was invited and was expected to come in thousands from far around, maybe from all the east-coast states.
I pictured cordons and roadblocks, and wondered whether our little group, if it ever decided what spot to go to, would be able to get there, or find anywhere to park, or get into the campus at all. It was hard to check the “ground truth” from four thousand miles away. I thought about other sites, such as along the new Swamp Rabbit Trail; Albert sent photos of a hidden lawn at Montague Village. At length I realized that the ideal spot was the tip of the bell tower peninsula.
Then Furman had this idea too: its photographer would be at the bell tower. So would it be roped off? There was now a student village near the peninsula; and there was a widening likelihood of crowds. “You won’t believe” (wrote Debbie) “the hullabaloo” in the city: eclipse packages at hotels, rooftop bar specials, predictions of traffic jams.
The emailing grew more anxious and tangled until, well into August, I cut the Gordian knot by getting into direct correspondence with John Wheeler, who had become Furman’s Associate Provost for Integrative Science. As if he didn’t have twelve thousand others to cope with (that was now the projected number of eclipse visitors), he gave help which kept increasing in benevolent detail, until we were to have the tip of the peninsula to ourselves, with signs saying “University Research – Closed to Public Viewing.” Later, even the side-road leading to the peninsula (past the Japanese garden) was to be reserved for us; we could print out signs to put on our cars.
Dean Wheeler had to tell me that no staff could be spared to defend our space, so we might ought to be there as early as ten o’clock – three hours before the start of partial eclipse. And if the influx of traffic began to be too great, the campus gates might have to be closed to it. I thought I at least should be there early; I wouldn’t mind idling at the peninsula tip, meditating and making sketches. It didn’t work out that way. When I was able to arrive, there was a light population along the peninsula. It was not easy to distinguish our group from The Public, but relations were amicable. There were tents and chairs and picnic tables under the trees
Maurice told me he had noticed that the crape myrtles on the peninsula had grown tall. I had forgotten that there were trees: my memory was that there were hedges, only a foot or so high, along the flat tops of which I used to see funnel-spider webs glistening in morning dew. I became somewhat worried about the crape myrtles.
They proved to be at least half as high as the tower, and in red bloom. There were two on the peninsula tip, but we could easily see past them. The others did interfere with any view from farther back containing tower, lake, and sun.
So the crape myrtles were a problem for my picture. I thought of making them transparent; eventually decided to cut most of ’em down.
But these little trees provided one of the most popular eclipse delights, by casting on the ground thousands of the inverted images of the dwindling crescent sun, caused when rays cross each other by passing through a narrow aperture such as a space between leaves.
When informing my friends that our spot was to be protected from the public by signs saying “University Research” (an earlier version was “University Experiments”), I told them to be thinking of studies we night be conducting, in case the excluded public demanded to know. “Effectiveness of total eclipse excitement in reversing the aging process”? No better suggestion was made until we were by the lake and someone (Gil, I think) said: “How about the behavior of the birds?” They were ducks and swans – once, there used to be black swans, and migrating Canada geese. In the gathering darkness, all the birds we could see were swimming solemnly west, toward their roosts on the wilder shore. And from the woods began the pulsing twilight chorus of cicadas.
Just after totality, I noticed something more unexpected: two flotillas of maybe a dozen ducks, like filled-in V-formations of airplanes, were cruising toward each other. By the time I pointed and called out, the flotillas had met and mingled; but several other people had seen them. Could it be that one flock still thought night was falling, while the other had already realized it was not?
This lake has been named Swan Lake. It was just the Furman lake, back when I used to take morning dips in it.
Swamp Rabbit Trail
I hoped to arrive at our eclipse spot by bicycle (not mine, but lent to me by Jim Fowler).
The highway north-north-west from Greenville goes out past Furman University and Traveler’s Rest and on toward the Blue Ridge mountains. But lying in a gentle curve to the west of this route is the Reedy River, which rises somewhere near Traveler’s Rest and crosses the south end of Greenville’s Main Street. An old railway followed this valley. When I first came to South Carolina I lived in the mill village a mile north of Traveler’s Rest, and one goods train a day came out to the textile mill (in which I worked for a while). In another part, the track passed within Furman’s territory, through the woods beside the lake. We occasionally used bits of the railbed as a footpath, but most of it lay hidden in forest and swamps.
After the railway became disused, I was in a rails-to-trails group that hoped to make it into a greenway, like one I had many times ridden from Washington out into Virginia. It would bud naturally from the beautiful system of parks that already existed around and below the falls of the river, at the lower end of Greenville’s Main Street. It could extend north along the older trail down which drovers once brought hogs and cattle and turkeys, pausing at the place they called Traveler’s Rest.
It has been created since I left, over some opposition but then with great popularity. We had supposed it would be called the Reedy River Greenway, but, like Swan Lake, it has received a more tourist-enticing name, the Swamp Rabbit Tail. – Sorry, Trail.
I hoped in my too brief visit to see at least some of this twenty-mile trail; was a little cooler about it on learning that it is used by half a million walkers and cyclists a year, and has brought a yearly economic boom of seven million dollars, especially to Travelers’ Rest, no doubt helping what was a village to grow into even more of a sprawl toward the mountains.
The logistics of the morning of eclipse day were not quite in my control, and the result was that I and the bicycle were brought out by car to the Furman campus. So I can’t say I rode a bicycle to the eclipse (as I did to several, a Mexican fishing village in 1991, west Texas in 1994, an abandoned Indian city in 1995, and an Orkney island in 2003).
But I used it to revisit some of the landscape familiar and transformed – a dreamlike combination – such as the meadow along the back lane, where I once had a vegetable garden, in which a tree, a crape myrtle, now stands. And I did ride in afterwards along the trail. Long quiet stretches through the old railway cuttings deep in woods, then crossings of highways, then the elaborately shaped park around the falls, and a mile back north out to the Brantleys’ house.
Story of the goggles
For safe viewing during the partial phases, I meant to provide pieces of strength-14 welder’s glass, like two I had used at previous eclipses but had lost. I couldn’t set about ordering them till I knew how many people would actually join the party. This took so long that, when I at last began calling suppliers, I found that the things were out of stock – not only in the Carolinas but in places like Los Angeles. It was hard to believe that there had been such a demand for such an outré product. Could I get (twice as expensively) combinations of other strengths? – no, there was no combination that added to 14.
The more familiar product is eclipse spectacles, or “shades” or “glasses,” though they are not glass but pieces of plastic film set in frames made of card. Furman University had laid in five thousand of these. I asked Bill Brantley whether he could obtain a few of these, and eventually he was able to tell me he had no fewer than fifty.
On the day before the eclipse, he drove out to his office to get them, and on the way back parked briefly outside a sandwich shop. When he came out, the spectacles were gone. He spent much of the rest of the day rounding up twenty, from a school, and from a shop which still had some of these flimsy little things, now at ten dollars apiece. “That thief is on some corner, selling them for twenty.”
I had to take the spectacles with me in the cloth bag I wore on my back while cycling, since others might be there early. I trust these spectacles less than the welder’s glass, because a scratch may let the sun through.
One person, only, turned her back on the eclipse: my granddaughter Madeline, who was exactly one year old. She was born on August 21, 2016, and so had the problem of being simultaneously in Greenville for the eclipse and Durham for her first birthday party. But she resolved it by having her party the day before and coming with us. No big deal, she had just come back from a journey to Poland. Her baby-seat was turned away from the sun so that she wouldn’t look where people were excitedly pointing, but she will be able to tell the story that she was there.
Fahrenheit or Celsius?
According to a “by the numbers” box in next day’s Greenville News, AirBnB bookings for August 20 went up by 570 percent and brought in two million dollars, 14,000 visitors came in for Furman University’s event, and 50,000 to Clemson, where two data-collecting balloons went up to 10,000 feet. And the temperature dropped by 11 degrees during totality.
As we flew to the Raleigh-Durham airport a few days earlier, I remembered about the haze that blankets the eastern lowlands of America. You can see stretching away, above or below eye-level, cloud decks, of endlessly varied structure. Above the highest cloud-layer is blue infinity, below is the tank of haze, to a depth of perhaps fifty thousand feet. Living under it, you’re not aware of it; the sky between the clouds looks simply blue. It must dilute the view of the stars, but does it make any appreciable difference to an eclipse? – I think not.
To the Brantleys for hosting us, to the Furman authorities for diverting so much attention into welcoming me back on a hectic day, to the score of people I kept bothering by email, to those who have already sent comments and pictures (long before I am ready with my own), and to Sofia and Drew who gave about sixteen of us tea afterwards at their house nearby. There had been friendly competition between them and Terry and Nilly as to who would be host for this.
The less practical idea of meeting beforehand for lunch at a restaurant had been dropped, but I learned from it something that gave me a small jolt of amazement: Williams Hardware in Traveler’s Rest, which I knew as a museum-like store where Mr. Williams showed me antiquated tools such as a pecan-scooper, had not gone extinct but is a thriving restaurant, still under the name of Williams Hardware.
If you have a copy of my Under-Standing of Eclipses, please look at page 55. There is a large round graded-gray patch on the earth, representing the moon’s partial shadow (the penumbra). It is supposed to be transparent: that is, the blue of the seas should show through it.
(The same applies to all the similar globe pictures.)
Please tell me whether this shadow is transparent or opaque; and, looking at page 2, tell me whether it says “5th edition, August 21, 2016,” or what, and whether underneath that is “State June 2017” or what.
I’ve had this problem with printers every year. In the file I send, the shadow is transparent; the printers send a proof in which it is opaque, and I wrestle with them over the telephone until they find a way to get it right. With this book, the process is different, and the technical reason for the error is different. After there had been infuriatingly long delays for other reasons, everything was right except this, and I decided to leave it. I have thought of a way around, but it may not work, so I decided not to risk the process again until after this eclipse.
So I expected all copies, at least those recently acquired, to have the defect – opaque shadows. But in Greenville I glanced at someone’s copy – and lo, it had the transparent shadow.
I am mystified. If I can list which printings have which kind of shadow I may understand what happened.