Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Recalling the 1979 Total Eclipse

eclipse

What should you expect from the upcoming eclipse? A Facebook friend commends this — Annie Dillard describing the 1979 total eclipse, observed near Yakima, Washington.

The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed – 1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight – you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.

This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn?

Less than two minutes later, when the sun emerged, the trailing edge of the shadow cone sped away. It coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain, faster than the eye could believe; it swept over the plain and dropped over the planet’s rim in a twinkling It had clobbered us, and now it roared away. We blinked in the light It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the earth’s face.

Whoa, now that lady can write. From the essay “Total Eclipse,” in Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters.

Photo credit: Yakima, Washington, by Cacophony [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.