SOMETHING SLIPPED AWAY FROM me on August 21, 2017 at 10:19 am. It left when I saw the Sun turn black with a pulsing silver ring around it in the dark, starlit 10 am sky. It happened in seconds.
We had spent two days camped in the high desert of Oregon at a quirky campground called Solartown, also known as a farmer’s field near the small town of Madras. The field had been rented by the local county and divided into 5,500 campsites, each 20 x 20 feet square. Completely filled, Solartown was now a gathering of 20,000 people.
I woke in my tent the day of the eclipse and settled outside for breakfast. Across the way, June and Martha, friends from Seattle, together forty years, chatted in their morning tent, voices like doves, ordinary and intimate. My wife Jean was still dreaming in her sleeping bag. Her sister Sue, who lives in Portland, three hours north of Madras, had offered to lend us her camping gear, then decided to come along, making the whole trip possible. Her husband Tom had thoughtfully pre-cooked us dinners, and we’d loaded up the car with all the water and food we might need.
We five—June, Martha, Sue, Jean and I—along with twenty thousand others, were camped within inches of each other in a flat field. Still, everyone was in a good mood. There were spectacular views of snow-capped Mount Jefferson. The camp was quiet and slow that morning, as it had been the night before. People were low-key and expectant. Within a few hours, the eclipse would begin in Oregon and move across the entire United States, ending in North Carolina a few hours later. This particular total eclipse was very rare in that it would not touch any other continent or country besides the United States.
📷Astrologers had plenty to say about the symbolism of a shadow crossing the USA, bifurcating the country in a what-could-be-a-more-clear metaphor for the politics of our time. But I wasn’t really thinking about that just then. My purpose was to be present for the phenomenon itself. I’d been told that during the two minutes of totality, day would become night, and the stars would come out. It sounded like something out of a sci-fi movie. The night before, when I climbed out of my tent, I’d already been blind-sided by beauty. So bright! So bright! I thought as I stared at the dark, shimmering sky. Gazing at the night sky, it was obvious that we live in a sacred universe. Far from any city in the Oregon high desert, the sky was unabashed: glittering before me were the Milky Way, the great constellations of Orion, and the Big and Little Dippers, and Venus so wildly bright I found myself talking to her. Behind all that: endless depths of stars.
Our shared human ancestors had lived and evolved in intimate touch with this dazzling nighttime beauty. Now in only a century of electric lights, we have relinquished this most luminous of our natural inheritances. We cannot fathom the loss, how it might impact our capacity to vision and dream. Our descendants, should they survive, may conclude it was the loss of connection with the luminous night sky that occluded our human capacity to expand and think in a broad, holistic way, to create healing myths and new ways of living for our times.
NOW THOUSANDS OF US were camped like stacked logs in a farmer’s field, waiting to see one of the more amazing natural events of our earth. A group of twenty-somethings walked by in their hoodies and shorts, looking at their phones and chatting contentedly. Across the way, a bright, rainbow-colored van had been rented by a couple from Arizona. Behind them, a campsite had seven flags flying: one looked like an Irish coat of arms, another was the Irish flag itself, another was the American stars and stripes, and a pale blue flag that read: United Federation of Planets.
Jean woke up and sat next to me, looking her scruffy, morning self. Sue drank coffee as she and Jean remarked on the calm of the camp. The loudest noise came from the nearby highway. A dad walked by, holding hands with two little boys. A woman wearing t-shirt and sweat pants, morning hair akimbo, scurried past a gray-haired man in tie-dyed shirt and pony-tail.
📷As the bright sun rose in the sky, we lined up chairs in blazing heat, and soaked bandanas in ice water. A cheer went up from the entire camp at 9:10 am, an hour before totality, when the moon began to move towards the sun, taking a small dark bite out at the top.
We spent an hour watching through eclipse glasses as the black moon slowly ate the bright circle of the sun. Watching the sun slowly disappear was almost dizzying. But what came next, I hadn’t really considered. As it began to turn into dusk, the air turned immediately cool. As it turned turned towards darkness, I was so chilled I went to my tent for a jacket. Now it was almost fully dark. A young couple camped on the other side of us waved and the woman cried out, “It’s almost here!” A few minutes before totality, we were all up from our chairs.
And then: darkness.
Twenty thousand of us exclaimed at once, a loud, hushed gasp. We had watched the dark moon through our glasses until it almost entirely covered the Sun and there was only a tiny slip of light, like a thin crescent moon. Then snap, like a new lens fit suddenly over my eyes, the entire Sun was gone. The sky was night. Rhythmic lights pulsed around what had once been the Sun and was now only its corona, an unbearably shimmering, luminous ring in the dark sky. My eyes filled with tears. I choked and cried out.
Then I saw Venus. She was shimmering brightly to the right of the glorious corona of the Sun. Gazing at the 10 am night sky, I was upended, and that’s when something slipped away from me. Without the direct light of the sun, I saw that the Earth itself is essentially dark. So is the sky. We think of nighttime as the short interval between our days; but in truth, light is the rare thing in the universe, which physicists tell us is comprised mostly of dark matter. It is that from which we all come–everything, even the Sun. We come from a great, dark expanse. Darkness is our common birthplace and dreamscape. Not darkness as in shadow or something bleak, but the great, fecund, restful aspect of the dark backdrop of the cosmos, which shines with bits of light like rare jewels. Now I saw the corona of the Sun pulsing like a living thing behind the dark moon, and the bright clouds of Venus lit like God herself. I looked at the true cosmos, dark as it always naturally is, even mid-morning when we are usually splashed with light, and things felt suddenly more true to themselves.
Jean told us later that her heart began to beat fast in her chest when she saw the total eclipse. After a moment, she danced in the darkness. She was right next to me, but I did not notice her dancing. I have no sense of my sister-in-law or our friends during those two minutes. For a moment I sat down, weak-headed, then looked back up. It is true that photographs do not touch it. People later talked about the feel of the Earth, that there were strange shadows, and light on all sides of the horizon. I never saw any of that. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the incredible, incongruous sky: all that I saw, for 122 seconds, was nighttime at 10 am. The true nighttime of our existence. But it wasn’t death. It was life, all life, everything that mattered. All I could do was stare into that dark, and darkly-lit, immensity.
After that endless 122 seconds, the dark moon moved on in its constant orbit. bits of sunlight began to emerge from behind the dark moon. To look at it, I needed my special glasses again. June looked over at me, and I must have seemed bewildered, for she asked how I was. I fell into her arms then, and wept. After a time, she and I gazed into each other’s eyes. Meaning mattered not. Words unimportant. Everything lived there, human to human. I was local again, but something had slipped away from me. For a moment, I had been a space creature. A small glimpse of the cosmos was imprinted upon my mind. Space, the cosmos: it’s not far away, it’s not “out there,” it’s our home. One morning a few days later, I looked up at the blue dome of our lives and thought: I know now what’s behind the morning sky. It’s a glittering, limitless dark. I had been returned to my place on Earth, and to the dearest people I know. But in the days since that August moring, I find that I am still a space creature. I will be one forevermore. In truth, all of us on Earth have never been anything but.