Great Nature has another thing to do… — Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”
The outer edge of the path of totality passed about three miles to our south. This was the first complete solar eclipse to cross the entire United States since 1918 and the media had hyped it for months, so I don’t know exactly why we didn’t get the message and drive to the nearest point of full shadow, a strip mall parking lot in front of a Big Lots. We were tired. We’d just returned from a trip to England, and the eclipse was happening in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Would I have missed Woodstock if it had been on the neighboring farm? Likely. I’m a poet. I believe in experiencing profundities first in private, and then communally.
My wife Betsy planned to watch the event from the top of a parking garage, a sort of impromptu eclipse party for those who couldn’t take off from work. That morning before Betsy left I said, “I want to experience it with the wild animals in our yard,” sounding a little too much like Dr. Doolittle. She asked if I was sure I didn’t want to go to a gathering of humans. This time I joked about going it “alone for the Great Nature show.” If I witnessed the eclipse alone, I imagined, I could enter the worldview of a panicked Neanderthal, or an ancient peasant watching the sun being eaten by a dragon.
My wife knows me well enough to understand my flights of fancy, and my belief in the possibility of my own private eco-sacred space within the larger cosmos. I would be one like the speaker in Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking,” who believed in “Great Nature” and “lively air.” “We think by feeling,” the poet said in 1953, and answered all the questions of the poem with another question: “What is there to know?”
Only a week before the eclipse, we had visited Glastonbury Tor with English friends and I had a preliminary encounter with an unexpected enchantment of a sort, something my vacation reading had suggested English artists and intellectuals are experimenting with enough to put out an anthology called Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and its Meanings. Inside the paperback’s lime green covers I found no easy definitions of re-enchantment. It isn’t until I read through to an essay by Robert Macfarlane called “A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook” that I appropriated a definition I could press into practice: enchantment is the hallmark of wonder and the loss of enchantment is modernism’s distinctive “injury.” Imaginative language resists and maybe even heals the injury. Words and experiences with particular places can restore or “re-enchant.”
At first I thought our outing to Glastonbury Tor would be merely a cardiovascular excursion. We would park, hike, and enjoy the view, enlisting the medieval church tower at the top for a photo prop. But as we approached the tor’s summit, getting steeper by the step, I spotted a man ahead of us, dragging a black, wheeled suitcase, made more for airports than a National Trust hillock in the English countryside. A small congregation trailed him. Once we were all on top of the tor I watched the man with the suitcase take out two copper rods, like long knitting needles, and begin what I recognized as the ancient practice of dowsing. He walked around one sloping side of the tor until the needles crossed. At that spot he paused and offered a prayer. Then a congregant opened the zippered luggage and soon each member of the group removed an urn and uncapped it. I was glad the winds whipped south off the tor’s outer edge—soon the prevailing breeze over the Somerset Levels caught the ashes and spirited them away in a magical glittering cloud.
Why was Glastonbury so special that someone might pull a carry-on suitcase of mortal ashes up 518 feet of uneven trail to disperse them? Had I witnessed some international New Age funeral home’s online service for tourists? Or was there something different going on? After watching the ashes bellow in the breeze, the tor and surrounding landscape took on a charged, exceptional air. Before this observed dispersal the space had been secular, any easy mystery beaten down as surely as the path upward.
But knowledge, it’s said, often undercuts enchantment. I Googled Cherokee eclipse myths and learned of a great frog that swallows the sun when it disappears. It’s up to the people to scare the frog away—only “whooping hallowing, beating kettles, ringing horse bells, and making the most horrid noises that human beings possibly could” would save it from the frog, as James Adair reported after experiencing a total eclipse with the Cherokee in 1736. It’s worked so far, as it’s a “story that’s been told for 10,000 years,” a tribal member explained in a pre-eclipse newspaper article.
The essay nearest to my own eclipse experience is that of Annie Dillard, whose 1982 “Total Eclipse” recounts the 1979 event in eastern Washington state. Dillard even name-checked Theodore Roethke in the essay. “Like Roethke,” she says, “‘I take my waking slow.’” Dillard leans on Roethke’s “sleeping/waking” Romantic conceit and bypasses the nature part. When Dillard experienced totality she reported that “from all the hills came screams. The heart screeched. The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself…” She seemed to have found a sweet spot, or at least observed one. A partial eclipse, Dillard claims, “bears the relation to a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.” One is interesting, and one, she says, can change your life.
Refreshing my memory of Annie Dillard’s essay was my first true hint that maybe we had screwed up by not driving to the Big Lots or to one of the reservation-only “totality” parties at Clemson University Stadium or over at Lake Conestee Nature Park, where some of our friends would attend. What if the ancients and Annie Dillard were right and all who witnessed the event would believe for an instant that the sun might fail to recover from its assault by the moon? What if the frog was successful this time in swallowing the sun? Where was my kettle to beat? How would I assist the suffering sun from my off-center observation post?
Starting at 1:45 p.m. the mythic sun-moon conjunction approached the East Coast. A shadow scuttled across the land at over a thousand miles an hour, and despite wanting to be Neanderthal, I could not break away from my hand-held device. I looked up the timing of the solar eclipse, typed in our zip-code on one of the eclipse sites, and noted that 2:38 p.m. was the moment totality began in upstate South Carolina. I was a little peeved that this site confirmed that our spot in Spartanburg was “partial.” The calculator claimed I would only be 99.9% in the moon’s shadow at the event’s height. I’d been mistaken to assume that less than one percent didn’t matter. By the time it dawned on me that I hadn’t done my spiritual homework, there wasn’t time to drive to the Big Lots. I should have started with Bill Nye the Science Guy or Annie Dillard, not Theodore Roethke.
But I couldn’t let my stupid miscalculation cloud the possibility of enchantment. Starting at 1:55 p.m. I recovered my quest and decided my best opportunity at rapture resided in going analog, in, as Macfarlane promised, recording the event through my own words. I used my senses. I put on my special glasses and looked up. I pondered. I wrote in my journal and even drew little pictures of the sun and colored them orange and black; I walked out on the deck, and sketched the black bite visible on the orange sun’s west end. All along, I gauged the light in the room. I listened. I read Roethke’s poem again and pondered the difference between waking and sleeping and tried to slow down “and take my waking slow,” as he advised. And I compared the room’s darkness to the natural time of day—“dark as dark, as dusk, never quite dark as a cow’s stomach,” I wrote.
But I couldn’t keep it up. At 2:00 p.m. the handheld magic pulsing screen on the table called to me with its own rich 21st century enchantment. I had to see if there were any tweets from the top of the parking garage. I wanted to see what the Great Digital World was experiencing. I wanted to flash like a firefly with the two billion Facebook users. I looked at my smart phone and I was off and running, paralleling my old-school reflection with contemporary social media. I was miffed right away. Most of the postings on Facebook referred to the eclipse as “science.” Though I had been successful at ignoring the ability of science to accurately predict the path of the eclipse, I had at least paid attention to the hazards: we’d bought certified viewing glasses for our protection, and technology waited to put me in touch with people all over the planet in real time. That was useful science, citizen science, a fine thing, but the side-show around it was driving me crazy. My payoff would be if enchantment truly did come with the darkening heavens. The solar eclipse would give me an opportunity to deepen my experience with my own place, I thought. Using the eclipse as my dowsing rods, I could venture deeper than science and experience the eclipse in a more profound way than newer technologies could offer. I wanted to re-enchant the moment, to return to the ancient idea of the sublime. I wanted a window into how small we still might be, in spite of the Anthropocene.
But what made me think that there was anything deeper than science? I am, after all, a big fan of what science has brought into the world by way of its methods—systematic observation, measurement, and experiment—approaches that have informed our knowing for centuries and even allowed us to know that there would be an eclipse and where it would occur in the first place. Great Nature, though, to me, includes some sort of “depth” to it that science doesn’t reach, and, I might add, it doesn’t really have to. What we can “know” and what we can “believe” are very different things, and at times they aren’t even in the same solar system—like the idea we encountered on the top of Glastonbury Tor, dowsing and ley lines. Do I believe there are lines of energy below the surface of Somerset, one very powerful line in particular you can read about on websites that is believed to run from St. Michael’s Mount on the coast of Cornwall right through the middle of the tor 170 miles away?
In spite of this ideological boxing match in my head between analog and digital, I kept watching the small screen of my iPhone. One Facebook post exclaimed as we approached totality, “This stuff keeps amazing me! #science” and another exclaimed, using bold caps for emphasis, “People are following the solar eclipse because of SCIENTIFIC PREDICITON, but we seem to take some forecasts more seriously than others,” turning the eclipse into a bat to bash climate change deniers. Science was winning over enchantment. As I scrolled my Facebook feed I saw Neil deGrasse Tyson’s face everywhere and never once the face of Theodore Roethke.
As the moment of greatest darkness approached, I pulled up a piece from The Washington Post on Facebook that concluded, “Hey, America, forget the other stuff for a second. There are bigger things in this galaxy. That overshadow us. That can unite us. Just look up.” I liked that and so I shared it. So much for being the solitary enchanted male. As long as I had my iPhone turned on, totality would remain participatory. It’s then I gave in and admitted I should have driven to the parking garage with Betsy. The first comment to appear on my repost—in milliseconds—was from a friend who ran with the symbolism of the eclipse: “An eclipse typically symbolizes the unconscious (watery moon) obstructing the will of the higher intellect (fiery sun).” The second, micro-moments later, was from a philosopher who isn’t interested in symbols at all in the context of an eclipse: “An eclipse symbolizes one thing being between you and another thing, like when someone blocks the screen for a minute as they go down the aisle in a movie theater.”
At 2:30 p.m. partial totality approached and Spartanburg began to drift into darkness. I walked out on the deck, and turned on my iPad so that I could record the ambiance, the natural response to the event, the animal sounds I’d told Betsy I wanted to hear. I put my special glasses back on and looked up one more time. The orange ball glowed against a black backdrop. It was an absurd reduction, as if the eclipse was only what happened to the sun.
Back inside, I walked past a photo of us Betsy had framed, taken by one of our English friends at the tip-top of Glastonbury Tor, and I missed my wife. What did it sound like on the parking deck at the moment of darkness? Did the town erupt into screams like the people did once on the hillside in the Annie Dillard’s essay? Maybe enchantment, I feared, is overrated if you have to experience it alone. In the photo Betsy and I are pressed together, the Somerset Levels below. We are folded over each other in complete joy against the wind and clouds behind. I’d taken off my cap and thrust my arm outward like a baton, conducting some unseen orchestra of air. Betsy’s smile is the most enchanting thing for miles. As I passed the photo I remembered something Annie Dillard had written in her eclipse essay; “It is significance for people. No people, no significance. This is all I have to tell you.” When I read this I felt extra guilty and wished I had put my enchantment fantasy behind and gone downtown, or at least I had kissed Betsy before she left.
I walked outside onto the driveway, and that’s where I first noticed the surprising results of not being in the path of totality. I was completely confused. How could it be both light and dark at the same time? There was a flare of light above me like an exploding star. How could this be? Wasn’t the eclipse supposed to be about darkness visible? It was dusk dark in the trees. It was as if a ring of light had blasted out the sides of the sun and landed in flares all over the yard. As if a volcano of light erupted above me. I wanted to look at the sun. Then I remembered. The damn glasses! I couldn’t look up and track this moment of near-totality because I had wandered, after all my preparation, outside without the special glasses Betsy had bought us. I’d put mine down when I went on the deck to turn on the iPad recorder. I’d left the glasses on the coffee table.
Without my glasses I couldn’t look up, something millions of people were doing within a hundred square miles of me, so I circumambulated the house like a Buddhist priest and looked down. It’s there I discovered my surprise enchantment. The leaves and gravel were thick with longbows of light, slivers, all shimmering in repeated patterns anywhere the sunlight leaked through the limbs and leaves. It was circles sliced into semicircles. It was a yard full of crescents all balanced among the leaves. There was the sound of insects and birds. There was an airplane flying between the sun and me. That was my moment of totality, and I was totally enchanted, so much so that I watched the charismatic shadows around me on the ground below and forgot about the darkening sky.
The intricate gears of the heavens still spin. The great frog goes back in his hole. Betsy, like the sun, returned from the parking deck and now sits in the next room in her overstuffed chair, quietly reading a novel as I ponder the rippling after-effects of partial totality. I’d placed my iPad on the deck and turned it on, and as I write, I listen to the five-minute recording and I find the record of the earth at one specific spot, maybe true as these words. On the recording there is a rising then falling bug drone; here is the universe’s scaffolding, here, the bass sound of life at its most intimate moments. A perplexed cardinal sings at the moment of greatest darkness, here, a yellow-billed cuckoo adds its guttural knocks to the darkening woods.
“From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home,” Annie Dillard wrote at the end of “Total Eclipse.” But I never left. Home may be the mystery partially shadowed by leaving, but it’s fully revealed only by staying put. As the recording ends, I hear my own lonely footsteps on the deck of my house approaching so I can hit stop.
John Lane is a poet, essayist, professor of environmental studies, and paddler. His latest book Coyote Settles the South was a finalist for the Burroughs Medal for Natural History Writing, and his poetry book Anthropocene Blues is just out.