Among nature writing, little comes close to Annie Dillard's accomplishment in her essay "Total Eclipse." While the depths it speaks to about our shared experiences, of culture, of self, are many, it tries to do more. As we hurtle toward our own eclipse event, this essay tries to prepare us for what to expect. What we will see.
"It began with no ado," Dillard writes. "It was odd that such a well-advertised public event should have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker. I should have known right then that I was out of my depth."
Dillard traveled to Washington to see her eclipse on February 26, 1979. It doesn't say so in her essay, though. We can figure it out, because these events are so rare that only one has crossed Washington in our lifetimes, or the lifetimes of practically anybody alive. In the last 99 years, there has been just one, that day in February. (Riverton got a 94 percent eclipse that day.)
"Without pause or preamble, silent as orbits, a piece of the sun went away. We looked at it through welder's goggles. A piece of the sun was missing; in its place we saw empty sky."
Dillard climbed a hill to see the eclipse, but very little planning went into exactly where she climbed. She and her husband pulled off the highway; they clambered over a fence; they ascended the grassy outcropping with hundreds of others. It just seemed like a good place.
These eclipses, they are ancient, primal happenings. Even when we get ready for them, knowing what is to come, our behavior during them may take us by surprise. Perhaps we cannot be completely ready.
"I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970," Dillard continues. "A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it."
What Dillard does not attempt is describing her emotions. She describes experience, viscerally and emotively, but not subjectively. She describes the experiences of the world, separately from herself, as a member of a throng that can, at best, understand what is happening. But understanding only gets a pattern-seeking, routine-building human brain so far, especially among a throng.
"From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed.
"Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world's dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet's crust, while the Earth rolled down.
"Our minds were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything. Only an extraordinary act of will could recall to us our former, living selves and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was all over."
Annie Dillard saw her eclipse 38 years ago. On Monday, we'll see ours. What I am saying is that the eclipse may astonish you, even if you know what's coming. It may surprise you. And it may frighten you.
And I wouldn't even suggest trying to be ready. I would suggest simply finding a hand to hold.
Editor's note: Riverton native Robert H. Peck is a graduate student in the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.