In the Sun – Earth – Moon system, the Moon represents the container which makes ordinary life on Earth possible, keeps its rhythms going. But both Earth and Moon are subordinate to the life-giving Sun; must turn towards it, honour it. Without the Sun, neither Moon nor Earth could exist. There could be no life, in the terms in which we understand it.
– Anne Whitaker, “The Moon’s Nodes in Action”
Joni Mitchell called us, prairie folk, “sky oriented.” How could we not be, when the sky is everywhere, everything, always?
I am perhaps a bit more consciously sky oriented than most – a longtime fan of the intricate movements of celestial bodies, adherent to the phases of the moon, natural devotee of eclipses.
So of course I knew about the total solar eclipse set for August 2017, where the totality would be visible across a great swathe of the United States. I had vague plans to make the trip somewhere south to see it. But 2017 turned out to be an exceptionally eventful year for me. Time passed, my schedule filled up, my mind was occupied with other things, and those plans just slipped away, though not without regret.
Then, a mere three days before the eclipse, Annie Dillard’s 35 old essay, “Total Eclipse” cropped up somewhere in my Internet meanderings. The essay in its entirety is a gorgeous thing, but somewhere around this passage:
I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
my mind was made up. I was going to see the eclipse, one way or another.
It felt important to go, to just do it, even though I had no time to plan properly, even though I didn’t really have the time to spare to drive nine hundred and some kilometres to the closest site of totality (somewhere around Douglas, Wyoming). And who on earth would be able to drop everything and go with me in no time at all, to be away on a Monday morning, which was when the eclipse was going to be?
I don’t mind long road trips on my own – you could almost say that’s what I do for a living. But planning a 2000 kilometre trip in less than two days was a little much, even for me. And as much as I love solitary experiences (quick note – the “sol” in “solitary” is derived from the Latin word sol – sun), some things are just better with company. So I started calling around. There was lots of interest, but no commitment. Then my friend Eve suggested our mutual friend, Kathryn, who I hadn’t seen for ages since she’s been busy living all over the world, and was in fact set to move to Winnipeg to start graduate school just four days after the eclipse. Knowing this, I hesitated to even ask, but I did anyway. She, a Virgo like me, thought it over quickly, mercurially, creating an instant pros and cons list – the biggest con being that pesky time thing. But then she came back with: “fuck it, let’s do it.” That had been my exact thought partway through Dillard’s essay, and is also my general approach to life. A bosom friend, to be sure.
Kathryn met me in Ceylon on Sunday the 20th of August at about noon. She had brought her mom’s fresh baked muffins, sundry other foodstuffs, an 8-person tent, a one person camp stove, and a pack of CDs (which we never listened to because we talked the entire 20+ hours of driving time). I had brought a sleeping pad and sleeping bag, (I had been prepared to sleep in cheap motels and eat McDonald’s the whole time, but Kathryn is, as I mentioned earlier, a Virgo, and a better prepared one than me, so camping it was). We both had our passports. I had managed to scrounge up some dusty old acetylene goggles from the shop at the farm which, Google told me, should protect our eyes from permanent damage. We weren’t sure, due to the last minute-ness of the trip, if we’d manage to get our hands on proper eclipse viewing glasses. Both of us were worried about sight damage – Kathryn especially as she was about to embark on her studies in landscape architecture and needed to be able to draw.
As I write this, I realise I am going into exceptional detail. I didn’t intend this, in fact wanted to avoid it and simply focus on the event itself. But, like Dillard, I find myself wanting/needing to express all the details of the journey and the hours and minutes leading up to the momentous occasion. But, for the sake of brevity, I will restrain myself from describing the whole story – but trust that there is a story. Every hour seemed suspended in time – full to the brim with our conversation, the events – crossing the line and being scolded by border guards for undertaking such a journey, sure to be caught up in huge crowds as we were. Crossing the legendary Missouri River and stopping on the highway to take photos of it. Driving through the hot, dusky Montana evening. Passing a sleepless night in the 8-person tent after laboriously setting it up and eating a dinner of pesto pasta with white wine, cooked over a tiny cookstove. Taking down the 8-person tent in the pre-dawn hours. Watching the sun rise in a glory of crimson and gold outside a greasy spoon diner in southeastern Montana knowing that we would watch it disappear and return once again before sunset that evening. Driving the secondary highways into Wyoming and not running into the hordes of traffic we were warned about – my tendency to take the alternate, backroad route working in my favour once again. Finding the perfect spot to watch the eclipse – on a hill, in a grassy pasture, surrounded by twenty or so friendly and pleasant folks. We didn’t need the acetylene goggles as it turned out, for those same friendly and pleasant folks offered up extra eclipse glasses to us, unasked. The kindly and perhaps lonely sixties-ish gentleman who stood near us, but at a respectful distance, and chatted as we waited for the eclipse. I knew he wanted to share the moment with someone, and was happy to. All of us in that field shared the moment, when it finally came.
And that brings me to it, finally. The eclipse. I knew the crazy last minute drive and the sleepless night and the expense of gas and all of it would be worth it, but I didn’t know how worth it. It’s taken me nearly half a year to write about this, and now I find I still don’t quite know how to do it. Tonight is a full moon, and in a few hours, there will be a total lunar eclipse. I went out for a quick drive earlier to get some thoughts down, because I knew I needed to finally write about the solar eclipse. When I think back to that hot, August day, I get goosebumps. In the months since, every time my mind has returned to that Wyoming pasture, I get goosebumps. It’s not an understatement to say that witnessing the eclipse was life altering. Life goes on, but thoughts of that eclipse always give me pause.
And that’s what it was. A pause. A moment (2 minutes and change, to be exact) I inhabited fully and completely. No other time in my life that I can recall being so. Having driven all that way for those 2 minutes and however many seconds. Anticipating that and being so very ready to be fully present in those 2 minutes. Everything heightened in that anticipation.
It was hot, the sun shining down on the yellowing grass, a haze in the air from all the nearby coal fired power plants we had driven past on the way down. It was like home, but unlike it, too. I wanted it to be as close to home as possible, chose Douglas not only because it was closest, but also because it is the high plains. No mountains to obscure the view. The sky everywhere and everything, always.
We were looking at the sun, carefully, through our gifted eclipse glasses and saw that it had been reduced to a small crescent, and yet the day seemed still to be marching towards high noon. It was still hot, still glaringly bright. It wasn’t until we saw only a tiny fingernail sliver of molten light through the glasses that the world around us noticeably changed. Without the glasses on, it would be hard to notice that an eclipse was underway.
Imperceptibly at first, and then gradually, and then quite obviously, the sky darkened. But before that, the shadows changed. Strange shadows cast across the hills on a cloudless day. The air cooled, suddenly. We put on our jackets – unthinkable a mere moment earlier. The chattering crowd hushed a bit as we all observed these changes in our environment. Knowing they were coming did not make them any less odd. The colour of the grass transformed from golden to silver. And then, beautifully, a bird’s song rang out. This was what I had read about, had hoped for. That confused birds respond to the change in light by singing their evensongs. Since we were in an open field, no tree in sight, I had accepted that we would probably not get to witness that eclipse phenomenon. But somewhere hidden, a grassland bird sang. A lump rose to my throat at the sound, and does again now at the memory. I wish I could recognise bird calls better so I could say what bird it was, but all I know is that it was a prairie bird, one whose call I knew.
And then the shadows deepened and the sky darkened into a colour Dillard called cobalt blue, and I can find no other description to improve upon hers. It was dusk all around the horizon, that gorgeous prairie horizon that always defines our existence, but had never been seen like this in my years of gazing at it. And of course above us, the sun had become that corona we are familiar with from photographs of total solar eclipses. A stunning sight, yes. But sight was not the only sense engaged. The singing bird had hushed. People gasped and cried out. Goosebumps rose from the sudden drop in temperature. And also, they rose from something else. Another, usually hidden sense suddenly engaged. The one that made the ancients believe that eclipses were portents of momentous events. The one that made the bird sing an evensong in the middle of the day and then go silent just shy of noon. The one that makes me believe in something more.
I was filming the eclipse, so I made a quick, jerky swivel with the camera to take in the scene, but very aware of the 2 minutes ticking away, I didn’t spend any longer than necessary. I wanted to just be. Observe. Feel. I looked at Kathryn and I could see that tears stood out in her eyes, as they did in mine. There were no words that I can remember exchanging, or even thinking. Except, perhaps, “glorious.” But I may have tacked that on afterwards, in the memory of the thing. In the moment itself, I was merely a being witnessing something extraordinary. The moon and the sun together in the sky, bringing dark to the middle of the day. I was so fervently glad I had come.
Then, so soon, the light came back. A joyous moment, that. The sun returns. And yet, a pang of regret that the otherworldly moment had ended already. A strange longing for that surreal midday darkness, the promise it had contained – the promise of something more.
Kathryn and I both felt absolutely, physically awful the moment we got back into my vehicle after packing everything up. The exhilaration was still there, but so too was nausea, lightheadedness, dizziness, to the point where I had to pull over for a moment and lay my head on the steering wheel. We’re both Virgos, so we started to worry, irrationally, that something awful had happened. We were just as susceptible as the ancients to this sort of thinking. But after we had just witnessed something so strange, so mystical, so overwhelmingly beautiful, and so beyond our earthly control, in that moment it seemed entirely possible that the world had been altered in some way.
Later, over ice cream cones at a McDonald’s in Gilette, Wyoming, we could laugh at ourselves. Realized that we had slept so little the night before, had been running on adrenaline and excitement, had been driving so many hours, not to mention had driven up into sudden elevation on the high plains of Wyoming. Altitude can do strange things to a person. But, too, there was the eclipse. The scientific reality of why it happens – the moon moving at astonishing speed to cover the sun and then move on again, exposing us momentarily to the dizzying velocity with which the earth rotates on its axis. And then there was the actual experience of being there and seeing day turn to night in an instant. How strange and unfeeling we would be if that hadn’t physically impacted us.
There was a story to getting home, too. A diversion to sight-see at Devil’s Tower, a quick nap in the grass there, a desperation to get home before midnight, the inability to quite get there, the overnight in a modest Montana motel. The endless conversations. The bond that Kathryn and I will always, always share as a result of this experience. Her emphatic statement that it had been “worth every mile.”
Almost 2500 words and I know I have not managed to find the right ones in the right order to even remotely describe the total solar eclipse. And the video I took that day, it too is nothing compared to the real thing. But still, it is something to see. I filmed it in real time and have presented it as such, no fancy effects or sped up bits. Just what it was like. No sound, either. The light changing is what it shows. And at its most basic, that’s what an eclipse is. The light changing in a way outside the usual pattern of things. I’ve written often about chasing the light – this time I chased after a lack of it. But of course, even in the darkest moment of the total eclipse, the light was still there. Obscured for a brief moment to remind us of its total necessity. The sun and the moon together. Us on earth at their mercy.