High cirrus clouds stretched white gauze across the sun leaving patches of blue sky. I freed my bike from the stand by my office in Harvard Square at about 1:30 pm. Only the leaves at the top of trees moved slightly to a wisp of a Southeast breeze. Riding home along Kirkland Street the breeze was only apparent wind striking me face-on. The harder I peddled the faster the wind. The air was thick with mid-day heat. Moving down the road had a feeling of swimming to it.
Home in Somerville, I walked my bike to the backyard. Opening the wooden gate, I heard the “cluck” of a disgruntled black bird moving away from me from dogwood perch to redbud tree branch, and then off across a neighbor’s yard. Sparrows flitted about in leafy trees and over to evergreens.
I went through the backdoor to the kitchen. On the counter was a pair of solar eclipse viewing glasses that my wife had had the forethought to order weeks ago. I stepped out onto the back porch, put the glasses on, and looked up at the sun. With such opaque glasses the blackness was absolute, punctured by a round sphere the size of the sun. The strange lit circle was broken by a smudge of blackness on the lower right side of the arc, at about 5 o’clock on a clock face. The solar eclipse had begun before 1:37 pm.
Contrary to the illustrations in today’s Boston Globe, the moon was on the move across the sun from right to left, from west to east, at least according to my earthly perspective in Somerville. This because the view from my back porch is of the moon moving slower than the sun. It cycles around closer to every 25 hours instead of 24. The sun is eclipsing the moon’s orbit, passing behind it while the moon in the foreground sets to the west more slowly.
By 2:06 pm the smudge had become an orb covering more than a quarter of the sun, perhaps a third. Finches chirped their normal mid-day chatter. A white butterfly flew about the yard. In the neighbor’s large six sparrows sat a willow branch. Their combined weight caused the branch to bow down a bit. Other sparrows sat other willow branches. Their attention was on a bird feeder my neighbor keeps filled during the summer. I could not see the feeder, just sparrow launching off willow wands in one direction out of sight and then returning.
Before the neighbor’s willow is a redbud in my yard. A gentle gust of wind caused some but all redbud leaves to rustle and the willow to wave. By 2:15 the dogwood and maple had joined in with leaves moving for a moment and going still. The sun appeared as the wide grin of a Cheshire cat rolled onto its left side.
The wind picked up. Arbor vitae and red cedar juniper branches moved with the leaves of deciduous trees. A couple of sparrows perched momentarily on our empty bird feeder. Then moved on.
The sun came out again, blazing through a vale of white. By 2:30 it looked to me eclipsed with the east horn matching the west horn of light. From my Somerville porch the eclipse is twisted to the west, not perpendicular with horizon to the southwest. Instead the horns of light, the corners of the open-mouth smile, are pointing to the West. Wisps of passing cloud give the sun, viewed through my very dark glasses, the look of smoking. As the world turns, the horns of the occluded sun appear to rotate downwards.
The moon stands before the sun, blocking about a third of light for what seems to me like a wonderfully long time. Yet it has only been 15 minutes.
I took a piece of paper, about 4 by 4 inches, and with a sewing needle poked a hole in the middle of it. Sunlight streamed through the window onto the kitchen table. I held the paper in the sunlight, tipping it to be more perpendicular to the sun. On table top a tiny bright spot appeared in the middle of the shadow square. I got out the magnifying lens, the one we keep for reading warning labels not meant to be read. Held the lens above the spot of light on the kitchen table, while in the other hand held the shadow puppet. Through the lens I thought I saw tiny crescent eclipsed sun. Concerned that perhaps I had made a crescent hole, I rotated the paper to turn the image. The image did not turn because it actually was a projection of the eclipsed sun through a pin hole.
The leaves and branches continued to rustle. Raucous sparrows continued to seesaw on willow branches while cleaning my neighbor’s bird feeder. A siren wailed in the distance. Here a passing cloud, or passing shadow of a sharp-shinned hawk, would have disturbed nature more than did the moon eclipsing the sun.
Another fifteen minutes passed and the moon counter-clocked across the face of the sun. The horns of the crescent sun tilted from West towards South. Clouds thickened and the sun faded from view. I took a look without the special glass and could not see because the sun was too bright, despite the cloak of clouds. My passing glance left momentary spots drifting before my eyes. I retreated to the kitchen table with pin-holed paper and magnifying lens to wait for sufficient clarity of light.
At 3:20 pm, an hour after a cloud hid the sun, the sun and moon continue to mostly hide while I sought glimpses of dark orb moving left across bright orb. The wind gusted stronger confirming that clouds moving in and fronts on the move were a great influence than was the moon passing before the sun.
The sparrows quieted down either because they had sufficient seed or because they’ve moved on to better pickings. Sunlight does not fall brightly again on the kitchen table.
3:45 pm, through my special eye protection glasses the clouds were black, they moved like waves of varying thicknesses over the sun, washing from right to the left side, where the black rim of the moon lingered before the sun. The moon that began at about 5, if the sun’s face were a clock, had swung around to 9. From there the moon continued to exit off to the left growing smaller in length and width.
By 4 pm, the inverted bite of apple had slipped away. Sun was round, complete once more. Moon and sun had gone their separate ways across the sky.
NOTE: The photograph was taken on August 22, 2017 by a student of Tom Hallock, Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern Florida, St. Petersburg. Tom and I were colleagues in John Elder’s nonfiction writing workshop at Orion’s Breadloaf Conference. John distributed what Annie Dillard called her finest essay, Dillard experiencing an eclipse. Tom distributed the article to his students and here it is in the photograph. I was most thrilled and envious to see the student had found a tree with pinhole-camera leaves projecting many eclipses onto Dillard’s piece. During the eclipse I searched the dozen or so small trees around my house for this solar effect without success. With students there are always wonderful discoveries.