CHILEAN ECLIPSE
Witnessed by Armand A. Gagnon

        
"The Sun...
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs."
(John Milton, 1667)

             South America: I was about to embark on a journey into darkness in search of Nature's El Dorado, in pursuit of true Incan gold! Little did I realize that it was to become my greatest adventure, for I was about to behold a total eclipse of the sun!  

    Through Old French and Latin, our modern term eclipse comes to us from Classical Greek's compound verb form ekleípein, meaning "no longer to appear or be present", from a combination of the prefix ek- or "out of the way" and leípen, from which modern English has developed its infinitive to leave.  Thus, from the point of view of an observer, an object that has been eclipsed has "gone away". Its Greek adjectival derivative ekleípitkós  passed into the English language as ecliptic, which ultimately became applied to the apparent path of the Sun relative to the stars, because that is the line along which eclipses caused by the moon occur.

    So off on my 20th Century magic carpet ride on Lan Chile flight # 169 was I, departing Los Angeles International Airport at 3:07 PM on Sunday, October 30, 1994. The plane was full of both professional and amateur astronomers; the renowned Dr. Krupp of Griffith Observatory was on board, acting as a tour guide for the eclipse aficionados. Flying from 34 degrees North Latitude to 34 degrees South Latitude, from one Mediterranean climate into another, was one thing. But flying out of North America's autumn and into South America's spring, with a 5-hour time difference, was quite another. To switch seasons and hemispheres in a minimal 13-hour time span was just another one of the multitudinous marvels of our modern times. 

    So, upon descending the plane at Santiago's Arturo Merino Benítez Airport, I thought a revolución had been in progress. The constant military presence of armed soldiers, or the Policía Internacional or carabineros, can be quite disturbing to the unaccustomed North American tourist upon arrival. So off to Chile's northernmost seaport town of Arica I flew, and right into the path of totality and into the coming of the moon's shadow I landed. For I had sacrificed my North American Hallowe'en on this Monday, October 31st, in exchange for Nature's most spectacular marvels one can behold! Only Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree, and Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum, The Fall of the House of Usher, and Masque of the Red Death had kept the ghosts, goblins, and autumnal ghouls alive in my mind while savoring foreign soil. For down here in the Andean countries there were no Día de los muertos or Day of the Dead festivities.  

      I had staked out my eclipse site up in the Andean cordillera, in Putre, Chile, on Thursday, November 3, 1994, out onto the highlands of South America's Atacama Desert, next to the Parque Nacional Lauca, where Bolivia, Perú, and Chile all meet. The towering Andes cordillera all about me appeared an ominous blue, rather chillingly  dangerous. Indeed this was to be no ordinary day. The Andean village of Putre was alive, steeped in a carnaval atmosphere of the Feriandina 94, or Andean Fair of arts and crafts, or artesanías. Indeed the droves of busses hailed in tourists from Japan, Korea, Germany, Scandinavia, and Australia, to name only a few areas of the world here to witness this amazing event. It was much like New York State's Woodstock of 1969, but with an altogether international flavor. I was fortunate enough to have heard Quechua, the language of the mighty Incas, in its preserved state, as well as to hear Aymara, the language of a local Bolivian indigenous people. I had brought my welder's glass, shade #14, to protect my retinas from abuse. Light clouds on the horizon had most of us worried, but to no avail in the end. Party revelers had fireworks in hand, New Year's Eve tooters ready to blast. 

    First contact, when the moon first smooched the Sun's disk, started at 8:20 AM local time. An eerie, electrical quietude swept over the canyon, where at the bottom stood a small farmhouse with some animals. Suddenly, temperatures dropped drastically in seconds as a chilly wind picked up almost immediately, at a staggering 17,500- feet elevation in the Andes. I had tasted some hoja de coca, or coca leaf tea at daybreak, to avoid soroche, or altitude sickness. As partiality continued creeping in over the still-invisible moon ever so slowly, the skies gradually became darker. As I looked about me, people around me on all sides began to appear as if they were under some black light, reminding me once again of the 1960s, with that glow on their skin and pearly whites of their teeth popping out. A haunting, static glow permeated the air, everywhere. As partiality reached about 60%, it dawned on me that I had never seen a partial solar eclipse ever make it this far! On all sides of me were snow-capped volcanoes or nevados that were beginning to shift hues and tone! The snowcaps began changing colors by the second, as the sky reeked havoc in a mosaic of painted tints, resembling ice-cream or sherbet in its alpenglow sheen, with its tangerine orange, crimson, saturated indigo, and purple hues, interwoven ever so subtly, creating an appetite for me. And the closest of encounters marched on, ever so slowly but deliberately.

    As partiality reached about 85%, for the very first time in my 44 years did I witness a "crescent sun", not moon. Birds began to flutter, and one group of sparrows oddly took flight and crashed into another flock, apparently just as disoriented, falling to the ground below me as loose feathers landed gently. Nature abruptly felt out of whack, as some horses and cows in that farmyard below began to nestle their heads and close their eyes to sleep, as if it were almost midnight, yet it was mid-morning! 

    Just then, shadow bands began radiating from the moon, like expanding donuts. They were, in reality, round rings of shadow interspersed with rings of light from the uneven exuding of light rays over the mountainous terrain on the moon, hitting the Earth's surface randomly. It produced such an uncanny effect: And the minimal clouds and snow-coated volcanoes kept on keeping on, shifting colors and subtle hues of crimson, magenta, purple haze, lavender, scarlet, mint green, marshmallow yellow, metallic pink, tangerine orange, and pastel blue, ever so brightly, from one second to the next.

    "Bailey's Beads!", those shimmering sparkling buttons of light,  I heard a voice shout out at about 99% partiality. Then, the scariest thing of all: That monstrous moon's shadow cone, racing across the Earth at 1,800 m.p.h., swooped down on us like a vulture ready to snatch us away. Screams of dire fright filled the air, then... totality! The sky had snapped over the sun like a lens cover on a camera, shutting out the light source! Darkness. A bizarre blackness. The sun was too distant, too cold, too small to keep the world alive. Fireworks and many uncontrolled tears followed soon after. No astronomy textbook description had ever prepared me for this event . A full, jet-black moon,  had covered the sun's disk, like the mating of two quarters together, in perfect unison. Never before had I actually seen a New Moon in broad daylight! Conception in the sky!  The union of all opposites, of darkness and light, of yin and yang! Those Greco-Roman observers of antiquity had it right: "The Goddess of Darkness had just swallowed up the God of Light", for that's exactly what it looked like. At first like a shimmering, floating lifesaver above water it glowed, hanging in the air like a pendulum: then it was totally devoured, gone. And the saturated blackness made the Earth and sky appear as they must in the analogues of the entombed, in the memories of the awakened dead. 

    I grabbed my 10 X 50 binoculars, with no need now to use the welder's glass for protection, and saw multiple streamers and prominences spread out on all sides like spokes on a bicycle wheel. And then, another unforeseen revelation: The sun's silvery corona, that golden wreath in my binoculars, really was 93 million miles away, far beyond the darkened moon's disk. Those photos in stargazer books could never actually portray that aspect, that multidimensional perspective. Now the folks about me looked much like they were negatives on a film, as I must have appeared to them, lost in an art photographer's platinum print, gone onto someone's 19th Century photograph tinted in sepia. And then I realized that there was a full-circle sunset in all directions around me, north, south, east and west, a 360-degree twilight, as Venus lit up like a lamp, stars shone, yet the Southern Cross had hidden her timid face behind a small cloud. The Northern Lights of Alaska and the Southern Lights of Antarctica may indeed be spectacular, but if it clouds over, there's always later on or tomorrow. With a total solar eclipse (and not with a lunar one), the observer has only minutes and precious seconds to savor the experience. And if the clouds rear their unwanted heads at the wrong time, you're flat out of luck. Climate is what you expect for any given region, but weather is what you get in the end, especially at totality time. As for me, I had a full 3 minutes of unfettered totality, which lasted a lifetime for me. Is it a mathematical coincidence that the Sun, appearing 400 times larger in our sky than the moon, yet is 400 times farther away from the Earth, embraces the moon so perfectly, or could it be Divinely inspired? I opt for the latter suggestion.

    We daytime stargazers stood awestruck, during this most magical moment in all of Nature, suspended in the Eternity of the moment. A Chilean man cried tears as he moaned aloud ¡Qué lindo, qué lindo!. Then finally the first bit of sunlight peeked over a moon's cliff, producing that strikingly heavenly Diamond Ring effect. I snapped my camera, using 35mm color slide film, then it was back to the shaded #14 welder's glass for further optical protection.

    After totality ended, the crowds began to disperse. Yet I stayed to savor the reverse effect of what I had witnessed just 90 minutes earlier. One does not simply see an astronomical event like this, one is immersed in it totally with mind, body and soul. For future eclipse chasers, if  partiality is around 99.9%, it's still not enough for that total magical effect. Only 1 person in every 10,000 on our planet will ever witness a total eclipse of our Sun. How fortunate I am to be one of those few! 

    Our next total solar eclipse in North America will be on August 21, 2017 A.D., to be passing through the Pacific Northwest. 

 

                                        "I want to see the Sun
                                        Blotted out from the sky."

                                               Mick Jagger, The Rolling Stones

                                         And it shall come to pass in that day,
                                        that I will cause the sun to go down at noon,
                                        and I will darken the earth in the clear day.

                                              
 (Amos 8:9)

                                        "I'm being followed by a moon shadow."
                                              
from singer-songwriter Cat Stevens

                                        "The world is my country, science my religion."
                                               Christian Huygens, Dutch astronomer, 1682
            

for more on total solar eclipses, visit: http://www.csiro.au/helix/eclipse

To order THE SPANISH SAMPLER:   

Please continue to Lingüistic Sources of Hallowe'en.

Hallowe'en poem: Winds of October

Day of the Dead/Día de los muertos

Origins of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving short story of fantasy: The Ghost of Thanksgiving

Origins of Christmas

Origins of St.Valentine's Day

Origins of Easter

Language Families

The Indo-European Family Of Languages

Indigenous Languages of Alaska and Siberia

Armand A. Gagnon on "UNIVERSATILE" LANGUAGE

Tales of B'rer Rabbit, as Spun by Uncle Remus

California Dreamin'

About the Author

Methodologies in Foreign Language Teaching

The History of the Guitar in Spain w/ YOU TUBE video

Essay: Is Academia Purely 'Academic'?      

Artificiality in Foreign Language Teaching

Anti Semantic: What's in a Word?        

      

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