Monday, September 28, 2015

Notes From An Eclipse

For those of you who didn’t have the chance to witness last night’s spectacular lunar eclipse, I took the liberty of dragging my sorry ass out of bed at 4:30 am to watch it for you. That’s real dedication, if you don’t mind me saying so. I am grumpier than Garfield on any given morning before 9 am; irrespective of caffeine and scrambled egg levels.  

Southern Africa gets a bad deal as far as heavenly alignments go: we hardly ever get to see a total solar eclipse, and lunar eclipses, while far more frequent, still happen at inconvenient hours. Maybe it’s payback for all the other heavenly delights we enjoy, like the Magellanic Clouds and the Southern Cross. The great astronomer Lacaille named a constellation (“Mensa”) after Table Mountain, so impressed was he when he journeyed to the Cape in 1750 to chart the Southern Hemisphere’s stellar largesse.

Lacaille also happened to be a priest, so I wonder what he’d have made of a huge Blood Moon setting ominously over False Bay – a moon that had, last night, made its closest approach to Earth in four consecutive cycles. The combination of full moon at perigee ("Supermoon", denoting the closest yearly approach to the Earth) and total eclipse is particularly rare. The next time this will happen is in 2033.

My own view wasn’t as perfect as I'd hoped. From the verandah of our little Edwardian home, the light pollution from the streetlamps dampened the stunning colours those with darker skies enjoyed. Being in the Southern Suburbs I also wasn't able to see the whole malarkey dropping down, magnified and filmic over the cold Atlantic.

And yet: seeing our satellite turn to vermillion… and then to rust… and then to crimson, hovering above the back of Table Mountain… it left me stunned and not a little creeped out. It’s a trick of the light, I said to myself. It’s just the Earth’s shadow, I reasoned, remembering the first eclipse I watched with my dad. But the word ‘shadow’ made it freakier. Realising that the entire planet can cast a shadow tripped the fantastic switch in my brain. No wonder people used to go all End Times whenever there was a comet or supernova or the Moon started bleeding. I was watching Joel 2:31 and Apocalypse 6:12 play out on an Imax, minus the earthquakes. (Thank heavens there were no earthquakes. John of Patmos has a knack for giving small children nightmares, and part of me was time-traveling back to that winter afternoon in our old house in Pretoria, my six year-old self reading about the Seven Seals, terrified.) 

It was 04h47 GMT +2 and thousands of people were watching this with me. In London, perhaps, a queasy 18 year-old on the South Bank glimpsed it, his vision already blurry and stroboscopic from three too many ales. In Iowa, maybe, an old lady pondered the scarred red ball over the cornfields, missing her late husband who once worked for NASA on the Apollo missions. Somewhere on the Croatian-Serbian border, who knows, a police guard stopped thinking of refugees for a few minutes, remembering a folk-tale his grandmother had told him when he was little.

Of course, Armageddon didn’t come, the Earth passed out of the umbra, stock-markets continued their jitterings, and slightly disappointed moonwatchers like me shuffled back into their houses to prepare for the day.

The mathematics of the eclipse was ordinary and utterly predictable.

The hush of awe so many of us felt was less so.

Our left brains know that the Moon is barren, devoid of green cheese, a battered skeletal ball of silicates that does not really make my favourite creatures howl at it (much to my disappointment). But without it we’d have no life here. No tides. No gravitational locking to prevent us hurtling away into the dark. No Clair de Lune with its daunting five flats. No T.S. Eliot rhapsodizing on windy nights, reminding us to

…Regard the moon,
La lune ne garde aucune rancune*,
She winks a feeble eye,
She smiles into corners.
She smooths the hair of the grass.
The moon has lost her memory.
A washed-out smallpox cracks her face…

* "The Moon harbours no resentment". From "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" by T.S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)

 Unsettling and beautiful, isn’t it? Kind of like what I watched this morning before dawn. And if the Moon has cosmic smallpox we’re at risk too. The Earth is a fragile, tender thing, constantly in pain somewhere, constantly spinning around a star that will one day consume it. I’m not trying to be maudlin here. I like it that we freak out a bit when the “lesser” rock surprises us, donning a crimson gown instead of her usual silver one.

It unites us, even if only in the brief moment of the eclipse.

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