THE FIRST TIME
It is 11 August 1999 and I am gazing up at the Sun, my eyes protected by a flimsy cardboard solar filter. I am completely unprepared for what is to come. In a few moments, my life will turn upside down as I experience my first total solar eclipse.
I am in the path of the Moon’s shadow – the path of totality – that is to sweep in a narrow band across much of continental Europe. My partner and I are in a crowd of 10,000 people congregating along a French beachfront promenade. We hear a multitude of languages as we prepare our patisseries and wine. Through our solar filters, we watch the Moon slowly move in front of the Sun. I know what is to happen – a perfect alignment of Sun, Moon, Earth. And me.
A sense of unease suddenly washes over me. Something is wrong.
Looking around, I notice the oddness of the light. It is as if we are on a stage and the Sun is a spotlight that’s dimming. The colour of the world is draining. My senses widen; I notice the cooling of the air on my skin. I shudder. Dread and terror crawl through my body. This isn’t how the world should be! I no longer understand what is happening. The hair on the back of my neck stands up. I shiver again with goosebumps.
I look around for several minutes with creeping unease. The spotlight above continues to fade. Then, without warning, nature goes haywire in a way that I struggle to comprehend. I let out an involuntary noise as the Moon’s central shadow rushes in with an ominous presence. Suddenly, an eerie darkness envelops us. There is absence of day, the spotlight is gone. Where moments ago the Sun shone, there is now nothingness. We are in totality. My logical brain screams at me: Where is the Sun? We need the Sun!
Around me there are screams, then a hushed silence. My mouth remains agog, solar filters clenched uselessly in my fist. I stare at the black Sun – now an unfathomable black hole in the dark sky. I cannot believe what I see: cannot comprehend the disappearance of our life force. This surely is the end of the world! Another wave of terror passes over me.
As my eyes adapt in the darkness, a halo of ethereal light appears around the eclipsed Sun. A somersault of emotions now replace the terror – excitement, euphoria, amazement and wonder. The world is not ending! Instead, we are witnessing our Universe. A profound awe washes over me in a way I have never felt before. How could such immense, sublime beauty be possible? I notice a deep sensation in my chest, buried within, like a swelling, a knowing.
We are in the Moon’s shadow and the world is holding its breath. The full meaning is finally revealed. This darkness is the shadow of our closest celestial body, our beloved Moon. We are in the Moon’s shadow! I have viewed the Moon thousands of times, but never before have I connected or understood it in this way. I am experiencing the three-dimensionality of our Universe – and it is vast. My mind expands with understanding, and with this comes another epiphany. The totally eclipsed Sun is like a portal, allowing me to fully experience our reality.
Time unravels and unites past, present and future – condensing my existence into this one moment. I am disoriented in place and person. I am here in another lifetime, thousands of years ago, facing the same wonder and terror. I am my primitive ancestors, and also my future selves. Yet I am also present and alive in this moment. How is this possible? It makes no sense, yet this revealed wisdom of unity seems the key to understanding life.
My prior-held understandings of the world seem so limited. Instead, I gain a deeper perspective, a life-changing shift in knowing. I understand that I am part of something so much greater than I could have ever imagined. I am connected to our Universe; to life itself. I am connected to humanity – to those immediately around me, and beyond. I understand I am but one person, a small speck of humanity in this vast Universe. I am insignificant, yet powerful in communion. I am humbled and in awe in a way I’ve never before felt, but I understand now. This experience is what makes us human, and unites us. That swelling sensation in my chest returns. I have an embodied appreciation and gratitude for everything.
I am in this altered state forever, in this strange inbetween shadowland. But somehow the spell breaks and I return to our time-bound Earth. I am aware again of the crowd around me, and the recommencement of time. I sense totality will soon be over.
The crowd screams in unison as the Moon’s central shadow sweeps rapidly over and away. The Sun’s blinding light returns, bathing everything in warmth and colour again. Our life force is back! This fills me with relief, yet an incredible longing to return to where I was, when I was there. I remember to breathe again. I hug my partner, unable to speak, my throat tight with emotion. I turn to take in the world around me. Birds return to the skies. People are hugging, I see their tears. The total eclipse is over. The world did not end. Life as we know it, and always knew it, continues, with every second. Yet I am no longer the same.
(By Dr Kate, reprinted from an article published in March 2020 in AEON. See the article in full here)
“Totality is an awe-inspiring natural event, surpassing our imagination of what is possible.” Dr Kate Russo
Every total eclipse is unique and different. But the first time we experience totality is unique, and is the most powerful and impactful.
In the video to the right, I am talking about my first total eclipse, and the impact it had upon me. This was recorded during an interview with Sarah Scoles for an article she wrote for Discover Magazine. I, like most people, struggle to find the words to convey the enormity of the experience.
My first total solar eclipse was in 1999. It was such an unexpected, emotional, intense, gob-smacking, awesome experience. Even though I knew what was going to happen, I had no idea that it would be so immersive. This profound moment changed my life. I immediately became an eclipse chaser – even before I knew there was such a thing.
I wrote in detail about my first time in Chapter One of Total Addiction: The Life of an Eclipse Chaser. This was reprinted as an article for the Astronomical Association of the Pacific and can be viewed here.
“The most common phrase you hear right after every total solar eclipse is this – when is the next one?”
PERSONAL STORIES OF THE FIRST TIME
I love collecting stories of people’s first-time total eclipse experiences – there is something special about the rawness of it all, and how life changes in those moments of darkness. People struggle to make sense of it, and often it takes years (and several more total eclipses) to put words to the experience.
My third book uses stories from people’s first-time experience to share the wonder of totality.
Here are some folk talking about their first time experience.
Yannick, Wine Merchant, Plymouth