A solar eclipse in the garden
So, how was it for you? The eclipse, I mean. Social media is awash today with images of the solar eclipse, which was visible this morning from northern latitudes. In our own area of Scotland it peaked at 95% totality (if that’s how you say it). It was not to get completely dark, in other words, but it promised to be a good show. My husband and I decided to watch it from the garden, which faces south.
The morning dawned bright and clear. Hurray, we thought: despite forecasts of cloud cover, we will be able to see the eclipse after all. It was to begin at around 8.30 a.m. At around 8.29, the first clouds began to drift across the sky. Curses! Plenty of blue up there, however: there was still hope. After breakfast, I found a shoe box and made it into a rudimentary pinhole camera. At around ten past nine, we put on coats and went out to the garden.
From every tree, birdsong rang across the lawns. You would never guess that our last snowman melted only a few days ago: in the garden, spring has begun. Crocuses and snowdrops embroider a patch of grass. The flowering currant, one of the most fragrant of spring shrubs, is in leaf against the south wall of the castle, and the first little lenten lilies or wild daffodils are blooming under an ancient yew tree. We seated ourselves on a bench and enjoyed the mild, still air.
Gradually, we began to notice that it was getting darker. It was like the dark that comes on a bright day when a thick cloud drifts over the sun – except that the clouds over the sun were wispy and translucent. The sun was throwing shadows, yet the gloom increased. Weird.
The cloud cover began to thicken: oh no, perhaps we weren’t going to be able to see anything of the eclipse after all. A chilly breath of a breeze sprang up.
‘I see it!’ exclaimed my husband.
A tear in the clouds revealed, momentarily, the sun with a distinct dark bite taken out of it. For the next quarter of an hour we sat, fascinated, as the light died in the sky to a strange, wan twilight and the birds’ chorus diminished. Although the thickening clouds meant that my pinhole camera was of little use, they did mean that we felt we could risk the odd peek heavenwards, where the sun gleamed like a crescent moon through a turbulent sky.
Given that we now understand the science behind the appearance of an eclipse, I was surprised at how unsettling it felt. There is something undeniably eerie about the light dying when it should be strengthening; about an evening chill seizing a bright morning. I can understand now why so many cultures have worshipped the sun, and have treated solar eclipses with superstitious dread. We joke now about how long we could survive a zombie apocalypse – but how long could we survive without the sun?
After several minutes, it suddenly became clear that the maximum totality had passed. The sun was too bright to glance towards even through clouds. Earth’s solar charger was not dying on us after all: we were safe!
The thin chorus of birdsong strengthened along with the returning light. As we walked back to the house at a quarter to ten – the daylight grey but brightening, the birds carolling, the dew still chill on the grass – my husband put his finger on how the moment felt.
‘It feels as if it’s about 6.30 in the morning,’ he said. ‘It feels like another dawn.’
Two dawns in one morning: what a memorable way to mark the equinox. From here on, across the northern hemisphere, the light is growing stronger, and we have spring sunshine and sunny days to look forward to. Even as a confirmed lover of autumn, I’d say that is pretty good for us all, wouldn’t you?