Ring of Light
The shadow of the moon is falling and people are rushing to stand in its path. What’s brought them here and why do they keep coming back?
By Liam Hodkinson
Artwork by Charlotte Humphreys
They call it first contact, when the first disc of black appears across the sun and shouldn’t be there. The sky has gone wrong in some small way and this strange black body creeps further in, sliding over the sun like a lid. You are seeing something rare, this blotting ink. Maybe it won’t appear here again for 300 or 400 years. The moon’s umbra moves eastward at faster than 1,400 miles an hour, but with your feet in the earth there’s little sign it’s moving. You stay and stare and have been warned of blindness, so not for long, and soon almost all the sun has been invaded by darkness. The light falls down, down, a long throw of the soul down. Morning dusk. The face of the world sad, shy, quiet, wonderful. Shadows become sharp and ripples dance on the ground like light through a swimming pool. Then, the final closing off, black becoming total, the perfect alignment of sun, moon and earth. Beads of light run through the valleys of the moon and show as diamonds in a thin silver wedding band while everything else is veiled. The air is the colour of cold iron. The sun has perished. Birds have gone home to roost. You know better and soak in this celestial perfection for the little time you have. A wreath of plasma pushes millions of miles into space and you can almost reach out and touch it, can almost put a clean piece of the universe in your hands. But just as you are getting used to this impatient night, something appears on the horizon to the north and the diamonds and the light come flooding back. You are looking up and the light is young, and the world is framed by inside light, and for the life of you, you think, here I am, standing, maybe even praying, in some old cave or church.
Jay Anderson describes it as like a movie, or mystery novel. He is sitting in a hotel room in Svalbard, a remote Norwegian archipelago in the far south of the Arctic Ocean, and one of only two landmasses where a total eclipse will be visible on March 20th 2015. Jay is a meteorologist and has spent 36 years studying and forecasting weather conditions for events like this. It is minus 15 outside and the flat frozen landscape is home to around 3,000 polar bears roaming through the ghost towns of early whaling stations, mining outposts and seas of marble ice. The bears are protected, but outside of Svalbard’s main settlements the law requires you to carry a rifle and, god forbid, even use it if your luck runs out and a lonely and starving symbol of the Arctic finds its way to you. Just days earlier a Czech tourist was dragged sleeping from his tent by a bear as he camped north of Longyearbyen. The 37-year-old is one of 1,500 umbraphiles, or shadow lovers, visiting the archipelago for the eclipse and, wearing several shallow gashes on his back, he described the attack with admirable understatement as “a very big surprise”. A photo of him lying propped up on a hospital bed is circulated around the world. Each story ends with the same quote: “I’d gladly go out to the mountains on Svalbard again.”
There are many like him out there, sleeping on ground covered by white and weightless blankets, closing their eyes and smelling the dirt and burnt metal of gunpowder in the darkness. The hotels have been booked out for years and only those that have long prepared for this moment get to hear the sleet and snow and rain fall against their windows. Jay says that times have changed since 79’, when the central shadow of the moon passed through Canada and the north-western states of the US, when The New York Times wrote of a great blueish mass sweeping across the snow of the Rocky Mountains, when Walter Cronkite shuffled his papers in the evening news and said: “America, the forces of darkness have ruled in daylight”. That year Jay put together a little pamphlet on weather conditions, climatological stuff he calls it, so people could pick the best spots to crane their necks and look up. He was working as a weather forecaster for the Meteorological Service of Canada in Winnipeg and by some divine luck was directly under the 180-mile wide path of totality. His report found its way to those early fanatics who took to skis, cars, aeroplanes, balloons and mountain trails to see the last total eclipse in North America for 40 years. The darkness lasted for two minutes and the red prominences and white corona were so striking that quiet murmurs swept through wherever there were crowds.
Everything grew like topsy for Jay after that. In 1984, he produced another forecast for the eclipse over Indonesia and New Guinea that found its way into the hands of the US Naval Observatory. Since then he has forecasted conditions for every new meeting of the sun and moon, holding a kind of mythical status among eclipse chasers as the man who’ll guide you to a gap in the clouds. He has seen interest grow from a select band of amateur astronomers to the commercial eclipse tourism industry of today, and though that’s nice, he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t sometimes hark back to those earlier days, and the way it used to be.
Jay has now scouted landscapes and guided tours for these new recruits since the late 90s. He doesn’t much remember names anymore, but the places he’s been: phew, half the time he can’t stop the memories floating out. He has walked through the vast dryness of the Libyan Desert, where brown plains, dunes and ridges get picked up and dropped in the wind without feeling rain for decades. He has watched the sky darken and heard the song of Africa in Botswana. He has slid through the endless Siberian plateau and seen the darkness fall on nothing, half a continent of nothing, moving past at 20 miles an hour through a frame of lace curtain and the throb of tired metal. He has seen 16, 17, or is it 18 totals, but doesn’t keep count, and three decades have passed, though it never seems that long.
Ask Jay what brings him back to these remote locations to, in the very plainest terms, see a rock move in front of the sun and he will tell you how those few minutes connect you to the rest of the solar system, how the sun is there and the moon is in position and you’re exactly under its shadow; how you can look at the whole earth and there is this little black spot and you are in it. And if you keep pressing him to help you understand a little bit more, he will say in his bright Canadian voice:
“OK, OK, it’s like peanuts.
“You can never eat just one.”
Back to 1979 and Walter Cronkite is finishing up. He looks down at his script and then into the eyes of America. Uncle Walter is wearing a fat knot tie and speaking in his famous slow drawl at exactly 124 words per minute, a trick he taught himself as a young reporter to improve his clarity. Somebody has placed the image of a large expanding sun behind him and its brightness threatens to swallow the screen.
“There’s been a good deal said in recent days about the ways ancients responded to eclipses”, he tells the camera, ready to bid America good night.
“But as we’ve seen today, modern man still hasn’t lost his sense of wonder.”
And yet we now know what they did not know; that totality is a statistical improbability; that the moon’s diameter is four hundred times the sun’s; that the sun’s distance from the earth is four hundred times the moon’s; that the shadow will recede in minutes and the light will return. So for a minute take yourself and wipe that knowledge and travel much further back, take the hands of the clock and wind them the other way for thousands and thousands of years, keep winding until there is nothing left but bronze and clay and nature much bigger, your feet dirty and bare in some early cradle of civilization. The sun rises every morning and sets every evening. Day after day, month after month, year after year, this source of heat and life always the same: a powerful deity, a father, a mother, a spirit of fire, a gatekeeper of heaven, an angry god if you’ve acted wrong. Then one day, a big chunk is missing and how could that not be seen as a warning? Events that happen in the sky foretell those to come on Earth so when the sun is finally gone, swallowed whole or grown too sad or sick or neglectful, what else is there to do but drop and cry with fear and mourning?
So picture yourself 4,000 years ago in the royal courts of Emperor Chung K’ang, on October 22nd 2137 BCE, the day of the first solar eclipse ever recorded, or else read the Book of Documents, the Shangshu, China’s oldest narrative, and it’s there, clear in the fledging prose: “On the first day of the month, in the last month of autumn, the sun and the moon did not meet (harmoniously) in Fang” … runs the text. Eclipses promised change in the order of things, doubly so if they were not predicted, so astronomers were kept close by ancient rulers, close enough to follow the paths of celestial objects, close enough to whisper their movements and turn orbits into voices. Emperor Chung K’ang relied on Ho and Hi, but they failed him that morning when the light drew back and an abrupt black hole appeared from nowhere; they had been drinking for too many hours and that negligence was enough to end their lives.
Here lie the bodies of Ho and Hi
whose fate though sad was visible,
being hanged because they could not spy
the eclipse which was invisible.
Or else travel much closer to the banks of the Halys River on May 28, 585 BCE, and imagine the armies of Lydia and Medes, two Iron Age kingdoms of Western Asia that have fought for 15 years with many dead on both sides. Battles have been won and lost but this meeting, in what is now central Turkey, will be the last. Soldiers sweat under Corinthian helmets and blood is shed until the soil is the same muddy red as the river’s sediment–rich waters. The sky darkens, suddenly loses its light, and the soldiers drop their spears and sickle swords, seeing that God has had enough of their fighting. The battle is over and so is the war. Aylattes, king of Lydia, and Cyaxares, king of Medes, are not too blind or stubborn to see this divinity, and a truce is agreed, with the river a living border.
It’s in our very nature to attribute meaning to things we don’t understand, only the details change with the years. The wolf-like giant Sköll follows the sun in Norse mythology, waiting for his chance to devour it. The evil god Set leaps into the eye of Horus in ancient Egypt. The Vietnamese see the sun eaten by a frog, while in Korea fire dogs try to steal it. Even during classical and medieval times, when Ptolemaic astronomy, the spherical earth and sky were fully understood, the heavens were still believed to offer signals. These myths served a purpose in that they spoke of a great truth: not one single thing is an island, the harmony and well-being of the Earth are dependent on something far outside our control. This profound realization is too hard for most to take. The ancient Chinese banged pots and drums and howled their voices coarse until the dragon was scared away. The Batammaliba in Western Africa stopped the sun and moon from fighting by resolving their own tribal conflicts. The Chippewa Indians lifted their bone-wood bows and shot flaming arrows at the sun, hoping, but never certain, that their fire would rekindle the flames.
Kate Russo believes that sometimes you just have to ask the right questions to get to the truth of things. She is a clinical psychologist working with patients with chronic health conditions, and an assistant course director at Queen’s University Belfast. She has a background in qualitative phenomenological research: the study of people’s lived experiences, the attempt to understand how a person makes sense of what happens to them. She is also a dedicated umbraphile and since 1999 has travelled the world to try and bring back the feeling of that first time, on the shore of that sleepy French coastal town Fecamp, when the light went eerie and different, and the colour was close to no colour at all. She couldn’t believe it, even though she’d knew what to expect, she couldn’t believe you could look at where the sun was supposed to be and not see it. It was unnatural, unsettling, beautiful, and it was only at the end that she came around and heard herself saying: wow, my god, WHAT was that?
It is something she will do for the rest of her life and as the years have passed it has become more and more important. She has published two books on totality and is now writing a third. She has spoken to hundreds of people about the things they feel when the sun hides behind the moon. She has been there, boots on the ground, for nine totals, and she knows they are worthy of investigation, knows she has lived a full life but nothing can quite compare to them. She plans five years in advance and has already begun arrangements for Indonesia 2016, US 2017, and South America 2019 and 20. And what has she found in those hours and hours of interviews, in her own humbling moments of darkness? The stories share a feeling of connectedness, she says, everybody touched by an eclipse remembers the weight of something greater on them. It’s like an existential feeling — that it’s OK. We live and we die and it’s OK. She says that concept is hard to communicate, but it’s there, and totality, just like everything else, is fleeting and special.
Eclipse may well come from the Greek word for abandonment but that’s not how it is anymore. I am one of thousands making my way to Scotland in the days before March 20th. The north of the country will be the best place in the UK to witness the solar eclipse, with 98% of the sun obscured at its peak. Nowhere will fall under the path of totality — only the Faroe Islands and Svalbard have that gift in 2015 — but Scotland’s tourism board still expects visitors to travel in huge numbers to its outlying islands. I go to Edinburgh, Scotland’s first city, and Calton Hill, just to the east of New Town. The national forecaster, the Met Office, has predicted heavy cloud but the sky is blue with only gentle breaths of white. The hill’s highest point is 100 metres above the city and on a clear day you can see all the way over the Firth of Forth. I head up the hill and watch the view for a long time. All of Edinburgh is out there below and the drop is steep, with even the birds flying lower. It gets busy so that at 8:30am, when the moon first makes its presence felt, the grass is disappeared behind bodies. Hundreds gather around the green-grey dome of the city observatory or against the columns of the National Monument, a Pantheon-inspired memorial to those lost in the Napoleonic wars. The monument’s stone is tar-black like the lungs of a smoker, and 200 years since the first foundation was layed, the building is still only half-finished.
When the eclipse peaks on Carlton Hill, when the moon covers the sun by 95%, it remains day, not some artificial night. It’s 9:35AM, late afternoon. A few street lamps have been tricked, colouring the roads a washed-out yellow. The world has not died and no one is shocked when the sun is reduced to a narrow thread, though the air is thick with something and people keep saying, it’s colder, it’s definitely colder. This is March but all I can think of is those summer BBQs and that early part of the evening when you’re tired from laughter, when you’re chilly even though it’s August, when you’re looking at the shadows and smiles on your friends’ faces knowing it won’t be long until it’s too dark to see them. There are groups sitting like that on blankets now. I can see them in the distance in Holyrood Park and on its main peak, Arthur’s seat, and even though I saw them earlier, they look different in this light, like pencil sketches or copper statues come to life.
9:30 moves into 9:40 and the moment has passed. The morning comes back in minutes, and I am, I’ll admit, a little underwhelmed. I am not changed. There has been no humbling. I haven’t felt an overwhelming connectedness. But as the crescent sun returns to a fuller shape and those around me hurry to leave I think of something Jay told me the first time we spoke.
“We have a saying about partial eclipses”, he said.
“95% is like kissing.
“Totality is like making love”.
He is 1,619 miles away in a frozen blue valley, just far enough back from the hills, and it is cold, bloody cold, even for a Canadian. He is one of 370 looking up at crystal clear skies and when the moon comes on, oh it’s exquisite, there’s no other word for it. Shadow bands flicker across the snow and it’s surreal standing there in the deep white of Svalbard, it’s surreal to be watching these thin wavy lines moving at your feet. It’s easy to get jaded after 20-odd eclipses, but when the temperature falls another six degrees to minus 16 and the corona sparkles like silver, well, he’ll be the first to admit it’s emotional. And he likes being beside these other folks, the South African that’s never seen snow, the newlyweds, the friends, the casual acquaintances, it all brings him back to 79’, his first time, and that bang when the corona spreads out. If he had to describe it he’d say it reminds him of old cowboy films, that moment when everybody’s drawing guns and blazing away, the showdown, the climax, and after the dust settles there’s always the same shouting and cheering going round, everybody hugging, kissing, grabbing hands and arms, and then there’s this silence and a small kind of sadness because that’s when you really understand the movie’s about to end.
Kate is looking down this fjord and there are mountains on either side and an awful lot of weather rolling in. The Faroe Islands are a stormy place in March, sitting between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, directly in the path of depressions moving east off the US coast. She is waiting in the village of Eidi on the northern tip of Eysturoy and three years of preparations haven’t stopped it from being cold, wet and miserable. Her group of 140 have travelled from all over the world to be here, but are currently drenched and tired in the village’s school with hundreds of the local community. Everyone is watching the weather and Kate knows some of them will be getting anxious, but she’s not. She has it on good authority that the worst of it will clear by 8:30am, and anyway, if these years of chasing have taught her anything it’s that you have to let life unfold sometimes; there’s beauty in that regardless of the outcome.
She knows this whole thing has been risky, but right on time the rain does stop and the wind, so strong and cold an hour before, passes. Six hundred people move out of the hall and stand outside in thick hats and coats. For the Faroe Islands, you might even describe it as pleasant. The moon’s umbra is heading for them but no one here will get to see first contact, the clouds are stubborn and stationary despite the many promises and prayers. So when totality arrives, when the sun’s photosphere is completely covered by the moon, they can’t exactly see it, but there is darkness on the ground and it really is very quiet and hushed, and Kate is so stunned that she feels incredibly grateful to be among the crowd. Later, when it’s over, the locals will tell her they believe in magical things and that the darkness felt the same. Sometimes a thick fog falls across the islands and when you’re on your own you can hear voices carried into it, strange ghostly voices in that thick white blanket, like someone’s there but never quite in your presence.
That evening, thousands gather in Tórshavn, the country’s capital to celebrate. Kate is there in the big mad crush and just before midnight the locals form a chain and everyone is holding hands beneath trees filled with electric light. A wailing female voice starts up a ballad and people move their feet to the national dance. She is snaking around making eye contact and seeing the whole crowd, and she feels so bonded to them. Even now, back in Belfast, she gets goosebumps just thinking about it. This is why she does what she does. These memories that say: you’re a human being and look at all the things that unite us. She will never forget them and everybody asks which has been her favourite, she has heard the question from reporters thousands of times, and the answer is always easy: all of them, every single one is beautiful and unique and she would no more choose between them than a parent would their children.
I’m on my way home, and I suppose this is the end. The train moves through bone wood forests and machine-churned fields, and from horizon to horizon I can see these low tight streams made shallow by stones and the shadows of fish running through them. The journey is long and I am reading something in the dark corners of the internet that puts everything I’ve seen or heard over the last few days into a bitter-sweet light.
They say there is a time coming when all this excitement will be gone, that the orbit of the moon is growing ever more distant and the sun is always swelling and brightening. Eventually the moon will appear too small to cover the sun and just before that moment, when the moon is near perigee and we are near aphelion, it will occur: final totality, the last total solar eclipse on earth.
It will be extremely short, maybe even a fraction of a second.
It will only be visible from a small patch of the equator.
You can put yourself there, 600 million, maybe 650 million, years from now.
Everything is different. You are alone. A runaway greenhouse effect and the return of the super-continent Pangaea have ended the reign of complex life on earth. You can’t breathe. The carbon accessible to the biosphere is gone and photosynthesis has shut down. The surface temperature averages 47 degrees C and there are no oceans, they have long since evaporated. There is only dust and red wind and the flicker of something silver on the horizon. It’s gone before you’re sure you‘ve even seen it. That old worn wedding band, shapeless and burning. Only a memory repeating. Finally melting back to ore.
Follow Charlotte on Twitter.