In the early morning of August 21st, nature showed how blue a sky can be before a solar eclipse. What I wanted to do first was read again Annie Dillard’s classic essay. Her words, written thirty-five years ago, seemed to me the best preparation for my own eclipse event.
In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Dillard shares her experience of the 1979 solar eclipse. Although the essay’s images stretch and sting my mind, the one that stays with me is that of falling: the avalanche that slowed traffic, the loss of altitude in the drop into Washington’s Yakima Valley, the hotel lobby devoid of air, the reference to gold mines dug so deep the rock walls burn the miners hands, the trek up a slope that offers a view down, down to a thin river below. She falls into indigo as the moon’s lens snaps over the sun. She writes of the hatch that slams down on the brain. Her husband’s presence is “down the wrong end of the telescope.”
I was not in Washington State, but Hillsboro, Oregon, and I did not climb a 500 foot slope for my view. I sat near an open window with a view of the sun and listened to children and adults gathered outside. I tried to ground myself, as Dillard had done. What was happening to the landscape? I walked outside. Minute by minute the air cooled. A bush outside my window, once lime and emerald, shaded deeper until green-black slithered upward, leaf to leaf.
The eclipse took hold of the sky, but also the ground. Miniature replicas clustered on concrete and bark dust. They climbed the tree trunk. If I turned my back to the sun, my shadow, once elongated, grew bulky and squat. All the while, the moon took its sweet time to amble across the light.
Night took me by surprise. I knew it was coming, but still. . . the indigo of Dillard’s eclipse happened. In what should have been mid-morning light, the pathway’s lamps flicked on. What a reality check: given a natural wonder, even technology loses its equilibrium.
My eclipse experience lacked the drama and poetic sensitivity of Annie Dillard’s. Yet I watched the world descend into night—and right before my eyes. I could not help but fall into wonder. I’m glad I read the essay first. Falling is what great writing does for us. We tumble into another’s experience and then we ascend, better prepared to appreciate our own.