At total eclipse, trying to describe the indescribable

CASPER, Wyo. — Shortly after the total eclipse ended, my brother’s 9-year-old niece, Lily Litman, said, “That was literally the coolest thing I’ve seen in my entire life.”

I’ve got a few years on Lily, but I would have to agree. For pure awe and wonder, I can’t imagine what might compete with seeing a total eclipse in near-perfect conditions, which is what we had in Casper on Monday.

I had made an effort to avoid learning too much about the science behind a total eclipse. I wanted to feel, however faintly, the deep shiver that must have been felt by prehistoric observers.

I needn’t have worried. The moment total eclipse was achieved, I was almost incapable of thinking. I just stared at the blue-black disc of the moon and the fountains of light pulsating out from the hidden sun, and virtually the only coherent thought I could form was, “Please, please don’t go away.”

A few weeks earlier, I wasn’t sure the total eclipse was something I wanted to see badly enough to make the four-hour drive to Casper. While it was occurring, I felt like it was something I’d been waiting for my whole life.

I can only compare it to a recurring dream I used to have, in which I’d walk outside or look out a window at night and see all sorts of impossible phenomena — several moons, a spinning galaxy throwing off sparks, or stars aligned in startling new patterns.

It was one of those dreams in which I’d say to myself, still inside the dream, “This time it’s real. This one is not a dream.”

I’d always wake up disappointed and frustrated, so the total eclipse really was like a dream come true. It struck me with all the force of all those dreams and more because this time it was real.

I want to tell people who weren’t there something important, and I don’t want anyone to think I’m gloating. It’s just this: the next time you’re anywhere near a total eclipse, take the trouble to go see it. Even if, on Monday, you were where the effect was 99 percent of totality, it couldn’t have been remotely like seeing it at 100 percent.

When you’ve got your eclipse glasses on, it is interesting, very interesting, to watch the moon slowly move into the path of the sun. But when the last tiny bit of light winks out and you pull off the glasses and stare directly at that shimmering disc perfectly covering the sun, staring with your own eyes and alive to the whole surrounding scene, you’ve seen something you will never forget nor be able adequately to describe.

My eyes welled with tears in the first few seconds of total eclipse, but possibly the most amazing moment came at the very end. When the moon left dead center, creating the so-called diamond ring effect, where a tiny ball of unimaginably bright light suddenly peeks over the edge of the moon, I shuddered and I think I might have shouted something, or maybe just groaned.

It was awe but it was also intense longing. Everyone remarked afterward how it was the fastest 2½ minutes ever. There was such a rush of emotions, so many things I wanted to think about and observe and ponder, that I wanted more time more than I have ever wanted anything.

I might not have gone to Casper were it not for my brother-in-law, Scott Bennett, who drove out from Stillwater, Minn., with my sister, Mary Jo. Scott told us a couple of weeks ago that he had witnessed a total eclipse as a young boy and that nothing since then had affected him so profoundly.

That was quite an endorsement. The funny thing is, when he arrived in Billings and we grilled him about that earlier experience, he wasn’t sure when it had happened. It wasn’t until Saturday, in a fit of Googling, that he finally figured it out: It was 1954, when he was 7, in Minneapolis, Minn.

That total eclipse was visible in only a handful of states, and only in Minnesota for any substantial distance. He was clearly moved by this second experience, but I didn’t even ask him to describe it in detail, or to compare it with the first one.

I was surprised to find that I had grown quite selfish about this experience, interested only in my own reaction. I think this was because I knew right away that the experience was incommunicable, so what was the point of asking anyone else to attempt to describe it?

I am only trying now for the sake of those who were not in 100 percent territory, to urge them not to let another chance go in the future.

John Warner, whose photograph leads off this story, wrote in the email to which the photo was attached: “This event turned out the way I thought it might, basically that it’s impossible to photograph in any way that shows what it is like being there. Now that I’ve seen it, I really believe it’s not doable in still photos.”

It’s true, which is why I love his photograph. It captures something of the grandeur of the moment without attempting to show the grandeur of the eclipsed sun itself in any detail.

That is something that only the human eye can capture — a human eye in communication with a brain and a heart and with something that must be the human soul.

Special thanks to Tom and Merry Litman and their beautiful daughters Lily and Ella. They put us up and gave us the great pleasure of allowing us to accompany them on this amazing adventure. Tom is the brother of Pam Kemmick, who is married to my brother, John. They were with us, too. Watching a total eclipse with family is a good way to go. To my absent wife and daughters I can only say, “Next time!”

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