According to Annie Dillard a partial eclipse bears almost no relation to a total eclipse; rather it is like the difference between kissing someone and marrying him. I didn’t quite get the analogy until I experienced one myself, and since then I’ve decided everyone should witness a total eclipse.
For one thing, it was the first time in a long time I found myself in a crowd of strangers not holding a sign and protesting. For days afterwards I felt an exhilarated peace with our world, and I couldn’t even bear to watch the news. Much of the fun came from the party atmosphere and the surrounding fanfare, but I must admit – I didn’t expect to be so wowed. Thanks to Annie Dillard’s 1979 essay, my expectations were exceedingly high, and I thought surely they could not be met.
At the Piney Creek Nature Reserve in southern Illinois, we trekked up a half mile tractor path in the 90 degree heat to an open clearing. The sound system blared themed songs like “Here Comes the Sun” and “Moondance.” The burgers on the grill were donated by a local farmer, as were the heirloom tomatoes, and a nearby winery sent cases of wine. The festive atmosphere was something I hadn’t expected, but then again, most crowds I’m a part of these days are marching and chanting loudly against Trump and fascism.
It seemed to happen slowly at first; we all donned our NASA-approved sunglasses and sat in lawn chairs, sipping wine and commenting on the progress of the heretofore unremarkable Great American Eclipse (how it became our eclipse I don’t know). Then things started to change ever so subtly. The light and the very air took on an eerie quality. The oppressive heat remained, but I no longer felt like the skin was burning off me. The atmosphere seemed just slightly ominous, taking on a green-ish hue as in just before a storm. But unlike the pre-storm sky that sends us heartlanders running to the basement, it seemed to heighten the anticipation. Looking around me, I had the sudden idea I was in one of those dioramas at a museum that I loved so much as a kid (before holograms and 3D experiences). It looks real but the lighting was somehow off-kilter, the colors from a palette that’s not quite life-like and not quite real. A bit like technicolor, or the anti-thesis of technicolor, which is too contrast-y and suggesting of an alternate reality. This tinge in the air contributed to the feeling that something magical was happening.
What followed was a beautifully orchestrated and harmonious event that left me quite breathless as it unfolded as neatly as the notes on a musical score rise to a crescendo. Darkness descended gradually, like a curtain dropping, and the cicadas came up on cue just as you realize the birds have gone quiet. The excitement of the crowd was like a drumroll until somebody yelled “Now! Take off your glasses!” The joy around me was as total as the eclipse: happy people shrieking and cheering and whooping and simply enraptured as they whip off the eye protection and gasp at the corona – this shimmering narrow orb perfectly positioned behind the geometrically flawless black circle. Then as quickly as it began, the light comes back up and the birds come swooping back like a grand finale.
Then just as suddenly, as you look at people in this dim and other worldly cast amid gasps and laughter and clapping, the light slowly returns, and the birds come swooping back like a grand finale.
And when you look again through your NASA-approved eyeware you see it is only a tiny sliver still, slowly making its way across the sun, and you marvel that such a tiny glimmer could bring that much light. You realize what a powerful start the sun in fact is
So back to Annie Dillard’s analogy: A marriage is a commitment – a powerful and life-changing event not to be taken lightly. A kiss is a passing whimsy that may or may not be remembered. When called to mind most likely it’s wistfully or fondly – perhaps with regret – but not with much lasting impact. A total eclipse is a powerful act as well, but unlike marriage it has a force completely beyond human control.
Perhaps there’s something about nature doing its thing in an unexpected way that can leave one awestruck. We usually only get that feeling during a tornado or an earthquake or tsunami or some other destructive phenomenon. This event left us elated, not terrified, and with a profound sense of community not just at Piney Creek but on social media and various people texting photos. A bit like how everyone comes together to clean up after a natural disaster, but the euphoric bond of seeing this incredible thing and appreciating the planet and humanity in general is something I think we badly needed.
So I kept the news off …. for a couple of days as a reminder that there is power in beauty and good despite our catastrophes, but natural and manmade.