I missed the last total solar eclipse. I was studying in England then. My mind was focused on other things. But my mentor Everett Albers organized humanities programs around it back in North Dakota. One of them featured my father Charles, a cerebral banker, lecturing about the theories of Emmanuel Velikovsky, a Russian scholar who wrote sensational books with titles like Worlds in Collision and Earth in Upheaval. My father didn’t really subscribe to Velikovsky’s theories—that the earth has had a series of extremely dramatic collisions and near misses with other solar objects that have left a trace in the world’s mythologies—but he found them intriguing and amusing. Irony has always been one of the central energies of our family.
I nearly missed this eclipse. My life has been so rushed and chaotic this year that I failed to realize my original plan, which was to view the eclipse with one of my oldest friends Douglas in Oregon. He’s a physicist. I remember him explaining how an eclipse worked—we were at Stonehenge—to his girlfriend using a grapefruit and an orange.
In late August, 2017, "The time was out of joint," as Hamlet puts it, and I found myself in the days before the gathering time in Washington, DC, working on something completely unrelated. But when I landed back in Bismarck Saturday evening, on the eve of the eve of the great eclipse, and thought what it would mean to miss such a cosmic moment, I spontaneously threw a sleeping bag and tent into my car and Sunday morning drove off to Wyoming.
I’m not a very gregarious person. I wanted to see the eclipse alone and I wanted to observe it in the middle of nowhere. Thus Wyoming. I was anxious about the reports that hundreds of thousands of people would be converging on the path of totality: traffic jams, security guards, vendors, road closures, detours, ad hoc staging areas. At first I thought of viewing the eclipse from Devils Tower. That seemed like a perfect backdrop, with a hint of Close Encounters of the Third Kind thrown in in honor of my father. But Devils Tower would only have 95% totality and it was likely to be a zoo, a human rather than a celestial experience. It seemed to me that if I were going to do this, I had to push farther south to total occlusion. So I chose Casper, Wyoming. I knew it was the last total eclipse of my lifetime, depending on how far I was willing to travel.
When I approached Casper I realized that I did not want to view the eclipse with a crowd, in a festival atmosphere, so I began to look for gravel roads that snaked out into the sagebrush grassland. I rejected a dozen roads before I finally chose one that seemed promising. I found what I regarded as a perfect viewing station, pulled all the necessary gear out of the car, and began to wait for the moment. It was about 80 degrees, a very light breeze. The sky was clear, except for the smoke and haze from the forest fires up in northwestern Montana and Idaho. A few wispy clouds, so thin that they would not obstruct my view.
I sat on the prairie with my back against a sheep fence. While I waited a read Andrea Wulf’s book Chasing Venus, about the two Transits of Venue in 1761 and 1769. Jefferson was involved in that sublime moment of celestial revelation. So, in a much more significant way, was Captain James Cook, who sailed all the way from England to Tahiti to observe the 1761 transit. That, in a nutshell, is the Enlightenment.
The moment came at 11:46 a.m. MDT in the heart of Wyoming. The light had been diminishing imperceptibly for some time, but it was like the growth of your children or the frog in the pot of increasingly hot water. I noticed it in a series of increments when even my dull brain had to register that something strange was happening all around me. When the eclipse became total, I was filled with a sense of wonder I have not felt in decades. I tried to imagine how primitive peoples, without astronomy, reacted to the death of the sun. I was in many respects more interested in the vast and eerie twilight all around me than I was in the precise juxtaposition of the moon over the disk of the sun. I stood up involuntarily. I gazed about in joy and wonder and silence. I felt monstrously alive.
More to the point, I felt Jeffersonian. It was he who fueled my drive of 549 miles into the middle of the middle of nowhere. I tried to imagine what his reaction would be to Wyoming, which he purchased but never saw, what he would make of the pronghorn antelope tearing across the landscape, what he would think about an era when you can spontaneously trade ancient carbon for essentially unlimited mobility. After all, the men of the Enlightenment prepared for years for such moments. They made their way to the ideal viewing locations at the far ends of the earth by way of the low tech transport systems of a three mile per hour world. I did not have much gear. Jefferson would have ordered up one of everything, on credit of course, and spent months training so that he would not fumble when the great moment came. What would Jefferson make of the Internet—social media—a total solar eclipse as a social phenomenon? Was Jefferson capable of glee? Could he have an intellectual orgasm, or was his stoicism too deeply ingrained for that?
The moment the eclipse was over everyone on my gravel road packed up unceremoniously and drove away. I did not want to leave. I wanted to hole up against that fence and read Chasing Venus for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe take a nap. Or write a letter to my daughter from the land of the antelope. But soon enough I drove off too.
As I passed through the Black Hills on my way home, I found a poster, now useless, urging people to pay $10 to sit in an auditorium and watch the eclipse ("in the safest possible way") on a flat screen television. Lemonade would be served. That idea half-haunted me for the rest of my journey home. We live in the age of the mediated experience. Instead of observing the world, we watch the world through screens. They stand between us and authenticity. They mediate our experience. They are so compelling that they threaten to banish real experience—with the dust of central Wyoming in our nostrils and the scent of sagebrush. In one sense it’s like the Super Bowl: I could have seen the whole thing much better at home. But that does not seem to me to be life.
I remember once interviewing an eminent astronomer at Cal Tech in southern California. I asked him about his work. He said, "Mostly I sit in an office and read printouts of data observed by automated telescopes."
To my mind, that defeats the purpose altogether.