As I write this, America is preparing to witness its first total solar eclipse in almost 100 years.
Monday, August 21, 2017, the Moon will pass between the Earth and the Sun. Its shadow will race across the entire contiguous United States. My understanding is that the eclipse will be total in 14 states (the Sun will completely occult the Moon). But a partial eclipse will be visible in all forty-eight.
Game of Shadows
The path of totality runs tantalizingly close to where I live. From my home in Northern California, a 9-hour drive on well-maintained highways can take me to Oregon. Oregon is one of the states blessed to be in the path of totality.
But alas, my work and other obligations keep me tethered to California. I hope to see a partial eclipse, but will not get to experience the amazing totality.
It’s especially tough for me because I was once within miles of seeing a total solar eclipse. But I was in Zambia. And traveling those last miles was difficult. So, I saw the Moon obscure the sun 96%. Close but no cigar!
Songwe Point Village, Zambia, 2001
The village was ordinary – if perhaps a bit more orderly and fastidious. The golden-brown thatched roofs blend with the tawny soil and the dry grassland. It’s winter in Zambia. And there’s a somnolent silence in the village, except for the occasional buzzing of flies. Chickens are well into their daily routine, foraging on the dusty ground between structures.
But this village is not like others. It’s different in two significant ways. First, it is perched precariously on a promontory overlooking the Zambezi Gorge. Second, it was constructed for tourists.
The village is modeled on the many others that surround us. But it has “modern conveniences” for the tourists who stay there. There is a “bath hut” complete with a shower and tub. A small wood-burning boiler provides hot water. Ironically, the bath hut is the most photographed part of the village. It’s semi-circular, with an entire half missing. Instead, the diameter runs along the cliff above the Zambezi. It feels like bathing on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
A high wooden wall, or boma, encloses the village. It initially gave me a chill to walk inside. I felt like I was walking into a penitentiary. But of course, the barrier is for our safety. It protects us from predators, both the two and four-legged, roaming outside.
Note: The following images are digitized from my old film pictures. I apologize for their poor quality.
The light dims as the eclipse begins. Today, “Eclipse Glasses” are widely available. But back then we had 3”x5” cards with a rectangular window cut-out. Metalized plastic covers the window giving us a safe, if non-romantic, view of the event.
I also have a solar filter designed for a small Orion telescope. It fits snugly over the long lens I use to photograph animals in the bush. Using my Nikon film SLR, I prepare to snap pictures when the moment arrives.
It becomes noticeably cooler, and a chill wind washes through the village. The chickens move toward the roost and settle in for what they perceive as the coming night.
We marvel at the cosmic display. And I think how unlikely it is for me to see it in Zimbabwe. I’m a child of the straight-laced New York suburbs. Back then I couldn’t conceive of watching this heavenly spectacle from southern Africa.
Sudden crowing catches our attention. The sun is brightening as the Moon continues on its journey. The farm animals, thinking it’s dawn, begin to stir. The goats and chickens greet the new day without a thought for their strangely truncated evening.
Unlike the farm animals, our group of wayward travelers hugs and cheers. We’re simultaneously delighted and awed by the spectacle we witnessed.
Try to see the Eclipse – But Be Safe
Eclipses happen all over the world. But there will not be a total eclipse that you can see from the United States for another 28 years. Here are the next two total eclipses that will cross the continental United States.
- April 8, 2024 (Crosses US north-south – 12 states)
- August 12, 2045 (Crosses US east-west – 10 states)
Take the opportunity to view tomorrow’s eclipse, even if it is not total in your area. But be safe! No eclipse is worth losing your eyesight for the rest of your life. Wear proper eyewear, and enjoy the show!
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