The Great American Eclipse of 2017 is just two days away (August 21). In the path of totality, the moon will completely cover the sun. A black circle will appear in the sky where the sun once was, darkness will fall, the temperature will drop 10 to 15 degrees, flowers will close and animals will think it’s time to hit the hay, winds will calm, sunscreen company stocks will plummet (okay, not really), and Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Mercury and the brightest stars (not Beyoncé and McConaughey, but Sirius, Arcturus, and Capella) will become visible. People will “ooh” and “ahh” and marvel at the eclipse, as they well should.
The eclipse-indifferent might be wishing all this eclipse talk would just go away (“It’s already had its ’15 minutes’ of Warhol fame!,” they might say), but I’m not one of them. There’s something mystical, magical, and many other “M” words—as well as scientifically fascinating, about the eclipse—and I’m excited to view it.
I also love that the Great American Eclipse has taken our minds off the problems of the world—at least temporarily. People are talking about totality rather than Trump, Baily’s beads rather than Bannon, and nodes instead of Nazis. And that’s a good thing. I hope that the eclipse also allows us CO2-emitting, ecosystem-destroying, air-water-soil-polluting humans to take a deep breath and realize what we are doing to our fragile “Pale Blue Dot,” as Carl Sagan called it. The only place yet that we know life exists in this infinite universe.
I’m not lucky enough to be one of the 12 million Americans living in the path of totality, which stretches in a 71-mile-wide corridor from Oregon to South Carolina, nor do I plan to travel there to view the eclipse. The spot in this corridor where the moon will linger longest over the sun is near Carbondale, Illinois. That’s just 332 miles from Chicago, where there will be a partial eclipse of 87 percent. But almost 90 percent coverage in Chicagoland is not too shabby. So, that’s where I’ll be.
I plan to view the partial eclipse at a prairie deep in Cap Sauer’s Holding Nature Preserve in the Palos Forest Preserves in the Chicago suburbs. Cap Sauer’s is my favorite hiking destination in this area—and the farthest one can be from a road in Cook County. The prairie offers peace and solitude that can rival the remotest monastery; prairie grasses as tall as LeBron James; Evening Primrose, Goldenrod, Prairie Sunflower, New England Aster, and other striking wildflowers as beautiful as Lauren Graham (ahem…I mean my wife); and a great Starbucks (kidding again). Far removed from roads, powerlines, and other trappings of modern life, I might feel a little like (or at last 87 percent like) the eclipse-viewers back in 1806 in what is now Chicago, the last time a total solar eclipse was visible here. At that time, Fort Dearborn, on the banks of the Chicago River, was only three years old; Thomas Jefferson was president; the taxes in what is now Cook County were as high as they are today, and Michael Madigan was just starting his first term as speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. (These last two comments aren’t true, but, sometimes, it seems like things have been bad in Illinois forever.) And Native Americans hunting on what is now Visitation Prairie may have looked up in absolute astonishment as the day suddenly turned into twilight
While I’m happy to view the partial eclipse, someday I’ll travel to see a total eclipse. I hear that there’s really no comparison between a partial and total eclipse.
One of my favorite writers, the Pulitzer-Prize-winner Annie Dillard, compares them as follows: “A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane…What you see in an eclipse is entirely different from what you know.” These beautiful words are from “Total Eclipse,” Dillard’s wonderful essay that describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. Click here to read the essay; but read fast; it’s only available until August 22.
I’ll be dead (or 130 years old if medical science gets its act together) when Chicagoans get a chance to see a total solar eclipse in 2099. So, I’m jumping at this chance to see 87 percent coverage. And, in 2099, my young son—who once compared the moon to a piece of ice, who runs a store in my living room that sells drawings of the sun and moon, and who loves reading books about the stars and planets—will be an old man. If he stays in Chicago, he’ll have a great spot to see “magic” in the sky with his kids and grandkids. The Biblical verse about one’s descendants becoming as numerous as the stars in the sky comes to mind. For some reason, that thought makes me intensely happy.
Finally, we should take advantage of the chance to view total solar eclipses while we can. Each year, the moon slowly drifts away from the earth. In 650 million years-ish, the moon will be too far away to cause totality, and total eclipses will just be a memory spoken of by our descendants and their robot overlords.
Check out the following resources to learn more about the eclipse:
- Adler Planetarium: Information on its viewing parties at the planetarium, Daley Plaza, and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, as well as answers to frequently asked questions about the eclipse.
- Chicago Tribune: Nearly 20 articles about the eclipse—from how to view it, to information on viewing parties, to a graphic of what the eclipse will look like from the Chicago area.
- Great American Eclipse: Features a ton of information, including an overview of eclipses, the best places to see the eclipse, a history of eclipses, and much more.
- New York Times: Features many excellent articles, including “How to Watch a Solar Eclipse.”
- Astronomy magazine: Features an eclipse glossary, tips on safely viewing the eclipse, and 25 things to bring to an eclipse.
- SpaceWeather.com. The latest update on the eclipse, photos of past eclipses, articles about safe viewing, and an interesting article titled, Why Go to the Path of Totality?, which might convince some people to head to the area of totality.
- Time magazine: Answers questions such as What is a total solar eclipse?, What time is the total solar eclipse?, Where can this year’s total solar eclipse be seen?, and What’s the safest way to view the solar eclipse?
- NASA: At this helpful site, you’ll learn more about the science of eclipses, the truth behind eclipse myths, and eclipse-related events.
- Shadow & Substance: Cool graphics depicting how the eclipse will look in various areas of Illinois and in other states.
- University of Illinois Department of Astronomy: Nice description of what you’ll see during a total eclipse.
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes