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When the moon caught fire

Jeb Stenhouse

Clarkesville, GA


46 years ago, my dad drove several hours only to miss a total solar eclipse due to cloud cover. On Monday, I stood next to him as we made up for that missed opportunity with a spectacular total eclipse of the sun.

I write the following not to gloat or diminish anyone else’s experience, but simply to encourage you all to prioritize seeing this astronomical phenomenon for yourself if you can ever seize the chance. I love the amazing pictures that NASA and sharp amateurs can capture and share with the world… but as other total-eclipse viewers have reported, it is not possible to convey the full majesty of the event of totality in photographs or videos. It is an extraordinary experience that makes me wonder how the universe could be so astonishingly beautiful, whether or not intelligent life is around to gape in awe at its displays.

My family and I drove three hours from suburban Atlanta to join a small-town-American crowd at Pitts Park in Clarkesville, GA. We packed a picnic lunch that spared us the long lines for roast turkey legs and alligator-on-a-stick (seriously). We took up spots in the center of a clearing near the stage that graced us with a truly on-the-nose eclipse playlist; I was amused to sing along with “I’m being followed by a moonshadow, moonshadow moonshadow!”

Approaching about half past two on that hot August afternoon, the daylight dimmed and the temperature dropped several degrees. From the speakers Elton John begged “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” but he had lost the crowd, which was beginning to buzz excitedly in anticipation of totality. With two minutes to go, the inevitable and entirely appropriate voice of Bonnie Tyler told us to turn around for a Total Eclipse of The Heart. People across the park began to whoop and holler in excitement; as the music died away, I watched the last sliver of the sun wink out.

I took off my glasses and looked straight up – I remember shouting OH MY GOD at the top of my lungs as I saw a dark moon on fire in the sky. My hands started to shake as I felt pinned to the Earth by the very sight. I looked around to take in the entire atmosphere; the sky was a gorgeous violet, and a bright pinprick popped out which we thought at the time was a star but which I now wonder might have been Venus. The glade around us was dusky but still did not look quite like night; it looked like nothing I had ever seen before. The entire scene felt and looked like something out of a sci-fi story; it was a tableau out of time, lasting from my perspective far longer than the two minutes I had been promised.

I looked over at my mom and husband Mark to barely voice the words “can you believe this?!” Mark tried to respond but was on the verge of tears; my mother’s shocked eyes were all the response she mustered. I choked out a thank-you to my father for bringing us to see this incredible sight; he was unable to speak. A young girl behind us exclaimed “this is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen!” – a beautiful punctuation on the peaceful silence of the park as everyone stared in awe at the halo of sunfire writhing around a dark disc in the sky.

After that awesome break in time, a gloriously bright diamond burst onto the upper-right edge of the moon, and the crowd in the park raised a great cheer, roaring in approval at a moving performance. I remember feeling both enormous happiness to have seen it, and some sadness at seeing it go, as I put my eclipse glasses back on to watch the sun re-emerge from behind the moon. Daylight rapidly returned to the clearing, and the spell was broken. We packed up our things and joined the throngs of people streaming back onto the streets of Clarkesville, to think on the majesty of the interstellar clockwork we had just witnessed.

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