My Journey to Totality by George Wolfe
I decided to go to Vienna, Illinois. That’s where I’d watch the moon make its slow procession across the face of the sun. It was the morning of August 21st, the day of the great American eclipse. For three weeks, I was an artist-in-residence in the historic town of New Harmony, Indiana. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to venture into the path of totality since it was only an hour and a half away.
There was one major concern however – the prediction of cloud cover. I was praying for a miracle. I figured it would be easier for God to part the clouds than for Moses to part the Red Sea.
At 7 AM, the traffic was light on the rural route I took into Illinois. In 40-minutes I was at a Subway sandwich shop buying my lunch, then 20 minutes later pulled into Eldorado, Illinois. There I stopped for a McDonald’s “Big Breakfast” (hold the sausage please).
While munching on my hash browns, I ran into a local working-class fellow who gave me some tips on where to watch the eclipse. He was headed to Buncombe, Illinois. This sounded so “Hoosier” that I believed it was a sign. Think he may have been a Zen Master in disguise.
It wasn’t long until I past a road sign that read “New Burnside, Illinois, population 250.” With the word “burn” in the town’s name, I knew I was in the heart of eclipse country.
Just outside of Vienna I pulled into a ranger station on the outskirts of Shawnee National Forest. I managed to get the last legal parking space. Amidst a modest and patient crowd, I decided to set down my roots.
The eclipse started 6 minutes before noon. There was an amateur astronomy nut in the crowd setting up his camera. I overheard him say how rare it is to see a total eclipse of the sun. I boldly interrupted: “Fellas, this is not only rare on earth, it is rare in our galaxy!”
Consider the chances of finding a planet around a sun like ours, that is in the Goldilocks zone, that has liquid water, that supports life and advanced civilization (notice I didn’t say intelligent civilization), that is just the right distance from its sun and has a moon that is just the right size to cover the sun so as to reveal its corona. Tack on these last two variables to the famous Drake Equation, which I admit is some of the fuzziest math in science, and the estimated number of planets where this phenomenon occurs shrinks drastically. We’re lucky to be living on this planet, and we’d sure better start taking care of it!
Just before totality, the sun-moon couple disappeared behind a cloud. Our worst nightmare. But the astronomy nut nearby was timing the event: “We have eight minutes to totality, so we should be OK.” Four minutes later, the sun-moon couple reappeared. From then on there was clear sailing. Their wedding was on.
During the darkness of totality the corona blazed forth, and the moment it began we all erupted with ecstatic cheers and applause. And the planet Venus was nearby as a bridesmaid.
It is amazing how the slightest sliver of sun lights up the whole sky, the splendor of the sun is so overwhelming. The difference between 99.9% coverage and totality is huge, an astronomical quantum leap. Before it was over, we were treated to Bailey’s Beads and the sun’s diamond ring. We were inspired by its fire with hope.
Our experience of totality went by fast. I wanted an instant replay. Needed to relive that miracle which provided us with an ineffable “maybe there really is a God” experience.
One truth we were left with that no one can deny. In those precious two-and-a-half minutes of darkness, the celestial realm revealed to us the beauty we are missing if we allow ourselves to be consumed by hate.
George Wolfe is Professor Emeritus at Ball State University and former Director and Coordinator of Outreach Programs for the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He also chairs the Muncie Interfaith Fellowship, is a trained mediator, and is the author of Meditations on Mystery: Science, Paradox and Contemplative Spirituality.