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TOTALITY: Eclipsed by the Eclipse

Updated: Apr 10

near total eclipse of the sun

The eclipse eclipsed me.

Neither of us wanted to see it in town, surrounded by throngs of people, food trucks, loudspeakers, traffic. I wanted to watch from some high feature, to see twilight descend upon the ridges and valleys in full circumference, in the quiet of only the birds and wind. To have space to fully absorb the only total eclipse I’m ever likely to see, to let it sink in somehow, so I’d never forget it.

But there were the dogs to consider. They’d want to come, wherever we went; all the back roads are still buried in snow, the pull-offs on the nearby hills as well, and we’d have potential traffic to deal with. Jeb’s idea was to set up his camera across from a clearcut near the maple syrup factory; close enough to home that we could run the dogs back if they were getting restless. He wanted a place away from the trees, unlikely to be disturbed. Well, OK.

a man taking a photograph on a muddy road

He drove down to the sugarbush well ahead of time to set up his gear, dogs on board. I walked there to join him as the moon took its first bite out of the sun. At first, I couldn't figure out how my eclipse glasses worked; I looked into them and saw nothing but flat black. What a gyp! But then I caught it, a glimpse of Halloween orange in my viewfinder, a flat disc looking for all the world like a crescent hunter’s moon, but lacking the perspective of dimension. Seeing through the glasses was like watching TV: they were a barrier. I resisted the urge to view directly, but held my hand up to the sun’s very edge and saw shimmering rays shooting out and washing the sky with iridescence.

The light was changing by the second. The fir trees appeared an odd silver-grey, reflecting the sky and snow; the air was tangible, crystalline. Jeb was set up on a muddy road, framed by dirty snowbanks, looking out across a swath of clearcut and dogwood, but his lens pointed upwards. The dogs slept in the car, utterly uninterested as he took photo after photo; I focused instead on the annoying sound of droning machinery inside the nearby factory. How could it be this loud? How could people be inside, doing ordinary things, while this was going on?

I walked down the road in the other direction to get away from it, but I knew I couldn’t walk far enough; there was no high feature to get to, anyway. Why hadn’t we planned better? Why did we have to be someplace where the sound of machinery interrupted, looking out across a devastated landscape? Why didn’t I push harder to get my own way?

I wanted to share this moment with Jeb. But all the way back, I was thinking, well, if I can’t see it from a hilltop, I might as well be at home, where it’s quiet and pretty. The sun was high enough; even our tall trees wouldn’t block the show. When I told him I was going to walk back, though, his face fell. And I didn’t really want to be away from him, either. We have already shared the most important moments in our lives; we couldn’t be separated during this one. So I stayed, telling myself to get a grip and manage my expectations. There wasn’t time to relocate without missing the totality. He was happy, why couldn’t I be happy?

a woman staring through eclipse glasses

Through my eclipse glasses I could see the moon was now covering three quarters of the sun. The light across the snow had an eerie, pale cast to it, as if seen through a smoky quartz; I climbed up on the muddy bank to watch it spill across the land, without the road in the way. I slipped and muddied myself, cursing. Par for the course.

I went back to the car and climbed onto it, my feet on the open windowsill. Jeb wanted to help me up, but I waved him away. A better view now; I could see all around as the sky turned twilight and the moon crawled its way across the face of the sun.

I heard the machinery shut off in the factory, finally - and then voices of the workers as they came outside to witness the event. I was glad for them, but if I wanted to listen to a bunch of people shouting about the eclipse, I would have gone to town and watched it with the crowd. I almost said it, too. But Jeb knew I wasn’t happy.

“What, a total eclipse of the sun isn’t good enough for you?” he said. He was snapping pictures. To him, this was a technical exercise in photography, I thought; me, I wanted a spiritual awakening.

"Look, I know we're looking across a clearcut," he said. "I remember when there were 50-foot spruces all along this road. And yeah, the evaporators over at the sugarbush make a lot of noise. They're making organic maple syrup. We like maple syrup. And if the sugarbush wasn't making it, this whole place would be clearcut. It's not like we're trying to watch this from Ukraine, with the Russians bombing us." I knew I needed to change my mind, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t transcend my own dissatisfaction with the present moment.

eclipse over winter landscape

And then it happened.

It was amazing how much light the remaining rind of sun still cast, until it didn’t. The dome above us darkened to deep indigo and I saw a star – Jupiter, Jeb said – gleaming in the afternoon sky. The horizon between the spruce trees turned deep orange, like a winter sunset, and birds began to call asking each other what was going on. The balmy spring air turned cold. There is only one word for the night that fell so swiftly: it was unearthly.

The sky turned to charcoal, the horizon melting into deep lavender. But I have never seen anything so dark as the disc that swallowed the sun. It was infinite. I put down my eclipse glasses and stared into the black hole where the sun had been, the firey halo around it. I heard myself shout. I don't know if they were shouting over at the sugarbush, because I'd forgotten them completely. Jeb was silent. He was awestruck in his own way.

There really is a moon up there. There really is a sun. The sight of them in confluence, the inexorable passing of this phenomenon, the bright crescent opening wider, the darkness turning to dawn, the birds settling, the dogs silent, the stillness across the land, the light returning, eclipsed me.

I wanted to engineer a perfect moment out of something that was already perfect. I was thoughtless. But I am not nothing. I saw this. I was here to see it. That must mean something, though privilege has nothing to do with worthiness. And there is nothing that can stop the march of time, which marks the movement of the heavens with impartial surety, and will eventually claim us all.

But as the moon and the sun move in their spheres, for now, so do I. In totality.

total eclipse of the sun

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