The anticipation has been building for months, years even. A gradually-increasing excitement spread across the nation, as the population of half a continent geared up for a once-in-a-lifetime event. A natural phenomenon was about to occur, one that was last seen across the Untied States in 1918. A total solar eclipse.
Meanwhile, as millions of people were getting ready to see the moon obscure the sun, casting darkness in the middle of the day, another kind of darkness has been building up. That darkness, too, thickened across the nation for months. As it turned out, that other, man-made darkness erupted several days before the natural one. A human ugliness of the kind that has not been seen here in decades flared up. A repulsiveness which we all hoped would never be seen anywhere ever again.
On Monday, August 21, I joined the millions who traveled to see the eclipse from the path of totality. I went to Madras, a small town in the high desert of central Oregon. The predictable weather and open landscape there ensured clear visibility. Even NASA chose the place to put up some of its experiments.
A town of less than 7,000 people, Madras was expecting eclipse-viewers in the hundreds of thousands. The town has been preparing for months, and when the crowds arrived it was ready. Townspeople organized several activities, including a Solarfest with food stalls, arts and crafts and a NASA booth, where NASA volunteers provided information and activities. They set up at least four large campgrounds on open fields, including at the local airport. They marked camping spots in advance, closed roads, put up signs, brought in porta potties, and established several shuttle lines.
I stayed in a campground called Solar Town, that by Monday grew into a small town.
Our temporary town functioned flawlessly. Despite hosting thousands of people, it remained orderly, clean and quiet. People camped within their allocated slots. They deposited all the trash in trash bins. Despite the long lines to everything–lines for the bathrooms, lines for the shuttles, lines to see the NASA booth and lines to buy food–people remained calm, patient and friendly. The nights were mostly still and silent.
The people who congregated in Madras came from all over, as seen from this map, posted at the entrance to Solarfest:
There were people of all colors, people of all religions, people of all languages, cultures and countries, people with all body shapes and all sexual orientations. There were locals, visitors, tourists and, yes, IMMIGRANTS! And they all got along. Spectacularly.
“It’s amazing,” said the man who stood in front of me in line for the bathrooms the morning of the eclipse. “A camp full of nice people.” And a camp full of nice people it was. Tens of thousands of them.
This jumble of people sat together to listen to NASA scientists talk about the upcoming eclipse:
Together they ate foods originating from different ethnicities, like this Native American fried bread:
And they all danced together when Native Americans from the local Warm Springs Indian Reservation shared some of their culture:
On Monday morning, everybody watched together when the moon began obstructing the sun:
And everyone held their breath together when, for 2.2 minutes, the moon completely covered the sun. In fact, television crews broadcasted the scenes from Madras , in real time, across the world:
Amazingly, even my parents were able to watch the eclipse with us, directly from Madras, all the way on the other side of the earth.
Millions of people were awed because, in comparison to the sun, the moon and the cosmos, we are completely insignificant, all of us. Our differences and squabbles, our joys and sadness, our small pettiness are all inconsequential.
In times past people considered solar eclipses to be bad omens. They were seen as punishments for sins, warnings from the Gods, the withdrawal of the Mandate of Heaven. We know better now, but perhaps we should still see this as an opportunity for self reflection. Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is just around the corner, after all. A total eclipse following the eruption of human ugliness should make us think. Hard. And it should make us act.
There is hope, however. In Madras I found not only a wonderful place to view the sun, but also bright rays of promise for this nation, and for humanity in general. The two minutes of the eclipse passed in a blink, but the light that shone on the high Oregon dessert will last much longer, in many people’s hearts. It showed the good that we are capable of: inclusiveness, consideration, kindness, respect, patience, mutual-help, dignity, appreciation, human decency. These and some others are the qualities that define, or should define, humanity. These are the qualities that make our species stand out from the rest.
Hopefully, camps-full of nice people, like the one I stayed at in Madras, will vanquish the man-made darkness that threatens our civilization. Just the way that the brightness of the sun overpowered the twilight of the eclipse, making the world normal again.