The Best Eclipse Ever (of the moon and of the sun)

I remember my first solar eclipse. I was a kid, and it was the one Carlie Simon sang about, in March 1970.

(The eclipse reference is just past three minutes. Some other time we can argue over whether or not Carlie, singing in this video on Martha's Vineyard, was referring to the March 1970 eclipse or the July 1972 eclipse, but I'm sure it was the former, because that's the one everybody got all excited about.)

I was such a geek that I actually missed the eclipse because I was busy collecting data. There was a phone number you could call and a lady's voice would give you the time and temperature. Perfect. I called the number again and again and wrote down the time and temperature and made a graph. And I got results!

The temperature went down during the eclipse, then it went back up again. That was cool, but being tethered to the phone I missed the part about it getting all dark and a dragon eating the sun and everything. This may be the first time I've ever admitted that I did that.

I did get to see a full-on solar eclipse with no clouds some time in the 1980s or 90s in Cambridge, and the most memorable thing about that was the eerie double shadow effect caused by the penumbra's light passing through the tree crowns. These were the trees on Divinity Avenue between the Peabody Museum and the Divinity School. Having seen that during that eclipse, I've noticed it many times since, but caused by other light sources, and I'm always reminded of that day.

But my most memorable eclipse was not a total eclipse of the sun. It wasn't total, and it wasn't even the sun. It was a near total eclipse of the moon which is much more ordinary, except that it happened the way this one did, which was fairly extraordinary.


The Harvard Ituri Project Base Camp: Hanging out in the baraza.

I was in the Ituri Forest, at the Harvard Ituri Project's basecamp, with cultural anthropologist Richard Grinker. One of us had mentioned that the moon was full, which you could tell by looking at it, and there was this big round thing. But then another one us noticed that it was not full, and made that remark.

"Nope, actually, it's not quite full. I can see a bit missing."

Then someone noticed a little while later that it was even less full.

"Hey, wait a minute, the moon is not supposed to change that fast! What's going on here?"

At first we panicked because we thought that a giant invisible Dragon was eating the moon, but in short order our right brains took over from our left brains (or do I have that backwards?) and we realized that we were observing an eclipse of the moon. And not just any eclipse of the moon. One we had discovered!

After answering Rich's questions (he was a social anthropologist, so no reason he'd know) about who else could see this (yes, it is visible everywhere where you can see the moon ... no, if you are on the other side of the earth, it would not be visible...) we discussed the idea of waking up our neighbors, the Lese villagers who's homeland we were visiting.

I should mention that it was probably about 9:00 at night, and yes, all of the people in the nearby villages were in bed. It had been dark for three hours already, as the sun pretty much goes up and down at 6:00 am and pm. Or, using the local time system, the sun goes up at hour 12, and then is up for hours 1 thorough 12, then goes down, and it is dark through hour 12. (So noon is 6:00.) Anyway, this is a society in which there is no electric light and no regular access to things like candles or lamp oil. Essentially, there is no artificial light, though it is possible to make a torch if you really need one out of a special tree. And there is the moon and the stars and in the forest, the forest floor glows, of course. But not quite as brightly as the one on the far away planet in the movie Avatar.

As a result of the lack of artificial light, everyone had the same schedule: Up at dawn, then back to the villages at sunset, using the fire and the fading sun as a means to see while finishing off the daily tasks and socializing, and so on. But hanging around the campfire, as it were, for hours on end is not so much a Lese Villager thing to do on a day to day basis. In fact, wandering around outside at night was considered a little unsafe for reasons ranging from very good natural ones (like the fact that the place is crawling with leopards and snakes and such) to interesting supernatural ones. The point is, very few people spend much time out doors at night gazing at the sky, and the local science and folklore does not speak much to things astronomical, although one important part of the origin story does all happen up in the sky.

So, not only were our neighbors all asleep, but there was a distinct possibility that they had never observed a lunar eclipse, or if they had, that it was rare. So we went ahead and woke them up and, using our kerosene lamps to light the path, invited them over to our place. (Our research camp, which looked just like a local village, was less than 100 meters away from their actual, authentic local village.)

After cajoling our friends to join us, we all sat around in a circle in our chairs, which we had dragged from their shelter beneath our baraza (a 'baraza' is like a 'ramada,' like in the photo above). And our neighbors were wondering why we were sitting around in a circle out in the open in the middle of the night. That's when we sprang it on them.

"Look at the mooon. Part of it is missing, as though a great dragon has come and eaten part of it."

JM, one of our informants who lived in that village, looked at us and with a bit of snark said "Look, you guys, the moon is not always 'full' ... sometimes it is less than full, sometimes you can't really even see it. It goes in cycles, and it is from these cycles that our word for 'month' derives, which you will notice is the same as our word for 'moon' and if I am not mistaken you once told me that this is true in your langauge as well. And there is no such thing as dragons."

(We were probably actually using a term like "giant geko that lives in the sky and eats celestial objects" but I don't remember exactly.)

He was right of course, and he said all this with a look in his eye that told me he knew we were up to something. And at that point we explained that this was not a normal disappearance of part of the moon as per it's monthly cycle. He and the others did not believe us, so we had tea. And having tea took long enough that it could become obvious that something was afoot in the sky.

"Look at the moon again. Much more of it is gone!"

They looked. They went through the catalog of expressions people use there when they are shocked and amazed.

"Kwa... Uto... Wapi ... Inapunguza kabisa ...."

"Zhimoni," JM used my local name, "a dragon really is eating the moon!" (He was joking of course.)

I explained what a was happening, using the kerosene lantern first to light the ground where I drew a schematic of the moon, earth, and sun, and then as a source of light to demonstrate the effect. By the time I was done Muzungu-splaining the eclipse they were bored but appreciative. They thanked us for this knew knowledge and went back to their village to bed. By this time much tea had been drunk, the moon had mostly returned from the gaping maw of the sky-dragon, and the path to their village was well enough lit by lunar light.

The next day, the elder of that village and the elder of several other villages came by and our village's elder requested that I re-explain the lunar eclipse to the other elders. I did so. By this time several younger folk had gathered around as well, and that is when one of them said something in English that utterly shocked me. No one ever speaks English there, and if they do, it is an imitation of an English word much like you, dear reader, might say "Hakuna Matata" because you heard it in a song from The Lion King, not because you know what it means or can speak that language.

The phrase was "Total Eclipse" ... pronounced more like "Total Eclipsay" as it happened.

"What?" I said.

"The song. There was a song these white people had on their radio many years ago when I lived in the city. Everybody was listening to it all the time. Someone explained to me then that the whole sun could be blanked out by the shadow of the earth, just as you explained for the moon."

He was talking about the Carlie Simon Song.

It isn't just planets traveling in their orbits that go in circles.


For more stories from the Congo, see Congo Memoirs and Lost Congo Memoirs. (Remember to read the Congo Memoirs from beginning to end. They start with The Zodiac.


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Several years ago we had an eclipse of the sun and totality went through - inter alia - the Vogesan hills on the french/german borders.
So everyone climbed the hills to see it better ;-)

No, actually so we could see the terminator racing across the Rhine valley (at Mach 3-4 I seem to remember).

I do remember most people wore only a T-shirt because it was a hot day and we were the only ones it seemed who carried a sweater and a light rainproof coat up the hill ;-)

Unfortunately cloud obscured much of my photo, so I didn't get a shot of the corona :-(

Um, that song was the #1 hit in Jan 1973. I remember it particularly because that month I spent in Los Angeles (my first ever visit to the USA) and almost nothing else played on the radio. A quick visit to her web site confirmed the date. So she sang about the 1972 eclipse.

That apart, good story.

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 24 Nov 2011 #permalink

Hold on a sec ... I'm not so sure that is correct. She does not say that the song is about the 72 eclipse on her web site. She specifically says it is NOT about James Taylor taking a jet to the 72 eclipse. It is a song about an earlier relationship, and the earlier eclipse was the one everyone got excited about.

The popular knowledge at the time was that this song refers to Warren Beatty, but it may have been a composite. But it was NOT taylor.

I'm sticking to my guns. It was more likely the first eclipse.

Greg, I was a junior in high school for the March 7, 1970 eclipse. I lived on Cape Cod (in Harwich) and the path of the total was just east of Monomoy Island. We skipped school that day and I went out on a boat owned by my girlfriend's dad (a WWII Navy vet) with some reporters from the Cape Cod Times.
We were well prepared with dark glass, a welder's helmet and the pinhole/paper setup to keep track of the progress of the eclipse. We had to explain to the reporters what the pinhole apparatus was for (we were snotty precocious rats).
The view was perfect, nice weather and the corona even better than advertised. I was surprised by the reaction of the birds, thousands of which returned to the island assuming daytime was over, then leaving again after the lights came back on.

A few years back I went out in my own little boat before school to see the transit of Venus across the Sun. I overloaded my retinas, but t was worth it. My students thought I was nuts.

Very cool. Very interesting bird behavior.

I lived in Harwich briefly (for a couple of months), while doing archaeology for power lines in Chatham, Harwich, East Dennis and Brewster.

For those who might be wondering: The photograph above of the Harvard Ituri Project camp is the wrong one; I meant to post a photo with a Baraza. And I still will when I get to the computer that has that on it. For now, imagine a pole-constructed leaf-roofed structure over everyone's head.

In fact, the seats you see here are exactly the chairs in almost the same spot where we sat outside the night this story takes place.

Classic story. Love this post. Thanks :-)

"Giant Gecko Moon." LOL.

PS. Seen quite a few lunar eclipses but will see my first solar eclipse - hopefully all going to plan - next November in a years time from Cairns northern Australia.

I was such a geek that I actually missed the eclipse because I was busy collecting data

Ha! I remember some astronomer on The Sky At Night saying something along the lines of "I've [i]observed[/i] many eclipses, but I've never actually [i]watched[/i] one."

What beautiful story, Greg!!!

Thanks for share it with us.

By Del Coelho (not verified) on 25 Nov 2011 #permalink

If you can find a copy of an anthology called "Reporting: The Rolling Stone Style," there's a good article in there (by Timothy Ferris, IIRC) about a solar eclipse in Mauritania.