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Solar eclipse connects Americans to nature and one another


John Burger - published on 08/22/17

From Oregon to South Carolina, awe at a celestial event

The first sign that this day was going to be different came from the barn.

“Normally in the morning the donkeys bray a lot, and there was not a sound,” said Susan Wilson, a 60-year-old widow who lives in a rural area 10 miles east of Salem, Ore. “And there’s still not a sound,” she said during an interview at the end of a day that brought millions of American outdoors to view a total solar eclipse. At 9:05 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, the moon began to pass in front of the sun, completely covering it 72 minutes later.

Wilson and her daughter and grandchildren who came over for the day were some of the fortunate ones, living in the path of totality, a 70-mile-wide strip that made its way from the northwest to the South Carolina Coast, where the phenomenon was over by mid-afternoon.

“They haven’t called for me to come out and feed them,” Wilson said of her farm animals. “The chickens went in their house and roosted. Right before it gets to the totality, about 10 minutes before, it gets quite cold. It becomes like dusk. The birds start to sing; they think they’re getting ready to go to bed. Then, only when the totality occurs does it get dark … dark enough to see Venus and a few other stars. The sun and moon together is so pretty because the moon is so black, and then you’ve got this bright, bright corona around the sun.”

The continental United States had not experienced a total solar eclipse since 1979. Such an eclipse had not traversed such a broad swath of the country since 1918, according to the New York Times.

The effect is significant on humans as well as farm animals. “There’s a sense of it being cold and dark, a sense of ‘Is the sun going to come back? Is the warmth going to return? Is the light going to be there?’ There’s that anticipation,” said Wilson. “And then when it starts and you see the sun returning, everyone cheers.” For Wilson, a Benedictine Oblate, it reaffirms a belief that “we have not been abandoned, God is in control.”

On the other side of the country, Catherine Ruth Pakaluk was unpacking and settling into a new home in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. An assistant professor of economics at the Busch School of Business and Economics at Catholic University, Pakaluk was unimpressed by all the hype leading up to Monday’s celestial event.

“People are camping out, and I thought ‘What is going on?’ My eye doctor was sending out text messages on which glasses to use, and I thought ‘People are just going crazy,'” she said. “I’m thinking: there are all kinds of miracles in everyday life that nobody cares about.

“So I kind of thought, ‘Okay, we’ll just notice that it’s a little less bright, and maybe we’ll punch a hole in a cardboard box,” Pakaluk said.

It was soon after one of her eight children “kind of covered his eyes and looked through a cloud and came in and said ‘Mom, I can see the crescent” that Pakaluk’s husband called from the local golf club. They had a lot of special viewing glasses left over from the crowds it had expected but that did not materialize. He brought them home, and the family and some neighbors took turns looking through them at the waning sun.

What Pakaluk had pooh-poohed before, she was now seeing as something “remarkable.”

“It’s been making me think all afternoon: several friends drove off to the mountains where they could be in the path of totality, and I can see why they would do that,” she said later in the day.

She also began to realize that the event, shared by millions coast-to-coast, could have a very good effect on Americans at a time when they really need a lift.

“We’re in a really horrible news cycle,” she said. “I’ve gotten to the point…I’ve tuned out a lot of the news because I’m not sure I can find truth anywhere. … I guess I’m wondering if many people have become weary of all this stuff, and if this eclipse thing is like a natural wonder so they can get back in touch with their need to be close to nature, which is such a big problem for people now, with life being so virtual, so disconnected from reality.”

To the southwest, in Culpeper, Va., Kirsten Heffron, a 36-year-old writer and mother of two, was having similar thoughts.

“I love how the whole country decided all the political and business drama doesn’t matter today and we can just cancel everything and go stare at the sun. Can we do this more often?” Heffron posted on Facebook.

As she and her husband streamed a live NASA feed on her phone, the family relaxed in their backyard and viewed the diminishing sun with solar viewing glasses and pinhole projectors.

The sudden drop in temperature when the eclipse reached its maximum 83% coverage made her think about “how dependent we are on the sun for our survival. If the sun changed, life would change, too,” she said.

In spite of all the technology we have to assist us in viewing and understanding an eclipse, the phenomenon still leaves us with feelings similar to what our forbears experienced centuries ago, such as the chill or the longing for the light to return that Wilson described from Oregon. But, as Chad C. Pecknold realized Monday morning, before the eclipse began on the East Coast, man for centuries has had a pretty good understanding of why eclipses happen.

“I had viewed some of the wonderful things the British Library was sharing on its Medieval Manuscripts blog about eclipses of the past and how medievals saw eclipses,” said Pecknold, associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America. “There was a pretty good scientific understanding of what an eclipse was. Venerable Bede has a perfectly good scientific explanation in his book On the Nature of Things, from 703. What most people experience as a solar eclipse, it seems to me, is something that we don’t need NASA to explain to us.”

Pecknold tweeted that the solar eclipse is not a “spiritual event” but a physical demonstration of a “magnificently designed universe willed by God.”

“It’s a sign that points to an intelligent creator, and that’s what an event like this should rationally draw us toward,” he said in an interview. He said that at least one eclipse gathering, in Oregon, took on the trappings of a religious event, with meditation and yoga accompanying a concert and a gathering of artists. Such displays speak to a natural desire for God, he conceded. But with the assistance of reason, divine revelation and God’s grace, such natural phenomena can lead us to the “uncaused cause,” the God who made all things and perfectly designed the universe.

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