dylan tweney

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Notes from a totality

Photo of a total solar eclipse, from 2017

Today’s solar eclipse was far from total where I was. In Northern California, the Moon blocked at most about one-third of the Sun. Of course, I watched it, with Karen, sitting in our driveway with a colander (to make a constellation of pinhole-camera crescent Sun images on the ground). We chatted with our neighbors, one of whom lent us his eclipse glasses. We tried to convince the recycling truck driver to take a look, but he said he was too nervous.

I am a little sad that I couldn’t be back home in Ohio, where I grew up. My hometown, Bowling Green, was scheduled for about 4 minutes of totality today — although clouds might have obscured the sight. I have been thinking about returning for this event for several years now. But my life circumstances aren’t favorable for such a trip right now, so I settled for a partial eclipse from here.

I thought back to the 2017 total eclipse, which I watched from Oregon, along with my family, on a trip that my late father had planned years in advance.

So I wanted to share an essay (with some embedded haiku) I wrote about the experience.

What was your experience of the eclipse? Write back or drop a comment on this post — I’d love to hear from you.

Instead of sunrise and sunset, Buckminster Fuller suggested we use “sunsight” and “sunclipse,” words that make explicit what happens in a more accurate, heliocentric view of things. The Sun does not move; we, carried along on the surface of the Earth, turn away. The Sun didn’t go anywhere. It became hidden, for a while, behind the Earth. Then, some hours later, we turn back into the light, and the Sun appears to rise as it becomes visible, bit by bit, over the limb of the very planet we stand on.

By this way of thinking, a solar eclipse is a special instance of sunclipse. Instead of the Earth, it’s the Moon eclipsing the Sun. The fact that it appears to do so rarely, and that it does it so perfectly, with the disc of the Moon almost exactly matching the disc of the Sun, has to do with the relative sizes and distances of the three bodies. A perfect celestial coincidence.

It’s easy to imagine a different solar system in which eclipses of the Sun by our Moon never happen or happen constantly; where the apparent size of the Moon is much smaller or much larger than the Sun. Nevertheless, here we are, on this particular planet, where eclipses of the Sun by the Moon happen rarely enough and locally enough that they are worth seeking out.

As I stood there in a field adjacent to a motel parking lot in far eastern Oregon, watching the August 2017 eclipse happen with my wife, my children, my father and my stepmother, this experience of celestial motion touched me deeply. Just how deeply would not become apparent for several years. But that moment of witnessing the Moon covering up the Sun, plunging us into almost-night, caused something to start moving in me.

Like a struck bell, I experienced a vibration that continued long after the Sun returned to view and the black disc of the Moon slid away and disappeared into the blue light of day.

Annie Dillard has written about the experience of totality, when “the sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover.” She writes that at that moment, she left the world of the living and entered a dead universe, her mind light-years distant, looking at her husband through the eyes of ancient ones living in the Euphrates River valley harvesting einkorn with stone sickles. She wrote: “It was all over.”

Unlike Annie Dillard, I did not lose my mind right away. In my case, it took time.

the light
hiding beside the light

We had driven north for most of two days, through the top half of California, across the middle of Oregon from south to north, through a brief and unpleasant strip of Idaho, and back into Oregon to arrive at Ontario, Oregon. My father had selected the site years before, judging it to be a location that would afford a good view of the eclipse, with a decent duration of totality and a high likelihood of clear skies. He’d made motel reservations two years in advance, beating the rush of eclipse chasers and the corresponding spike in prices. That proved to be prudent. The weekend of the eclipse we witnessed an irate motel guest, who had stopped there for what he thought was an ordinary one-day stay, disputing a bill that was over $1,000.

Ontario was just as we had hoped: quiet, clear, boring. In other nearby towns, we heard of crowds and medical emergencies; there was an eclipse festival not far away that snarled traffic on the highways for miles. We avoided all that, thanks to Dad’s characteristically careful foresight.

My brother Chris and his family weren’t able to attend, but my stepbrother Thane and his family were, and they brought along another family, good friends of theirs. In all there were half a dozen children ranging in age from 10 to 16, and for most of the weekend the kids played in the pool and the hot tub, making a happy racket while the parents chitchatted on deck chairs and tried not to get splashed with the chlorinated water.

When the day of the eclipse arrived we gathered in the motel parking lot with our various accessories: Eclipse-viewing glasses with extra-dark filter lenses so you could look directly at the Sun without hurting your eyes, cameras, coffee, snacks. As the Moon took its first bite out of the Sun, we watched its progress through our special glasses. But the Moon moved slowly, and apart from what you could see through the glasses, there wasn’t much to see. It was at least an hour before there was a noticeable change in the quantity of daylight. In the meantime the kids got bored and raced around, playing tag and kicking a soccer ball back and forth. 

Once the light started to dim, the day took on an increasingly eerie quality. The light had the low intensity of twilight, but with a bluish tint instead of the warm hues of sunrise and sunset. The shadows remained short and sharp. The combination is something we are not used to seeing: Normally, warm colors, low light, and long shadows go together. Or else, on an overcast day, cool colors, low light, and no shadows. An unusual combination—cool colors, low light, short shadows—provokes unsettled feelings. 

That feeling intensified as the eclipse increased and darkness grew by degrees. Someone brought out a kitchen colander, whose hundreds of holes acted like so many pinhole lenses, casting hundreds of little crescent Suns onto the side of the nearest blank screen we could find, a white-walled shipping container. I made a lattice of my hands, interlacing the fingers at right angles to one another, so that the squarish gaps between my crossed fingers created the same effect, casting a grid of illuminated crescents onto the ground in the middle of the shadow of my hands. I got out a camera and took way too many pictures. 

The Moon’s pace seemed to accelerate. Once half the Sun’s disc could no longer be seen, it took half as much time to cut the light in half again, so the Moon seemed to eat up the Sun faster and faster, a reverse Zeno’s paradox. 

We walked across the street from the motel into an open, stubbly field, in hopes of getting a better view of the sky and perhaps of the Moon’s shadow as it raced across the ground toward us. By now it was getting quite dim. It felt like something had gone wrong with my eyes. We had to step carefully through the field to avoid tripping on the stubble.

Almost totality: the Sun whittled down to a bright paring of light. The Moon’s motion suddenly discernible through the eclipse glasses, as the arc of darkness could be seen clearly advancing into the arc of light to its left. A vertiginous sense of movement perceived across hundreds of thousands of miles, and with it the unsettling sense of action at a distance. Events not of this world were extending their influence upon us from afar. What dark magic was this? The brainstem sent signal flares through the nervous system, showing up as excitement, increased heart rate, and—despite all my education—fear.

Then: It was gone. The last arc of the Sun disappeared and everything changed.

The sky instantly became dark: Not completely, but as dark as a night with a full Moon shining. Which was odd, because there was no Moon. There was only a black hole in the sky, a circle punched out of the firmament, and surrounding it the white, wispy mane of the Sun’s corona. 

blazing forth
from the black hole of nothing 

We took off our special glasses. In the distance, whooping and hollering. Everyone in our group saying Wow, and Cool. Trying to remember to look around, or to take a photo, but mostly just staring at this weird phenomenon, this black hole surrounded by a corona of streaming, wispy light. Trying to really see it, to remember it. Looking for signs of revelation or of madness within myself and not noticing anything. Just a strong sense of amazement and appreciation, to be there on Earth, under the Moon-Sun, watching the eclipse with my family. 

Then, sooner than I had hoped, sooner than expected: Shining out from the right edge of the black disc, a sudden arc of light. A brief blaze of pure intensity set on the ring of silver corona. No sooner had it appeared than this tiny diamond of light expanded, flared, blew away the corona and became too bright to look at.

Even a tiny slice of the Sun emits too much light to look at directly. We put our eclipse-viewing glasses back on to watch that arc of light expand, from a paring to an arc, from an arc to a crescent, which then thickened and grew as the Moon continued its passage through space and, from our point of view, across and away from the Sun.

There was still something to see—all the curious aspects of the Sun’s apparent diminishment, including the weird light, the crescent images dappling the ground under the trees, the midday coolness, and the motion of the Moon—but the excitement was over. It was no longer new. As the light grew brighter by degrees, the rate of apparent change slowed, reversing what had happened before the totality.  The combination of normality and slower change made the whole phenomenon less and less interesting, even though the same condition—crescent shapes among the shadows, weird light—had held us fascinated half an hour before. Now it was old hat. We moved on, back to our lives, back to the motel pool, the picnic table, the poolside chairs. 

midday darkness
what the raven says
to its children

What had just happened? Despite the intensity and vividness of the experience, the whisper of ancient fear, I did not feel as if anything mystical had happened to me. It did not feel life-changing. And yet there was something profoundly moving about the event, something about witnessing celestial motion that touched me deeply, even though I could not put words to it. 

Later I would try to explain it this way: I had suddenly realized that I was standing on a big rock in space, and that hundreds of thousands of miles away another rock was moving at great, stately speed, coming between us and the star on which we depend. I had a sense of celestial motion, only the word “celestial” is too grandiose. It was more like a sense of bodies moving in space. And these bodies were moving according to specific laws of momentum and gravity, as they had done for billions of years and would likely do for billions more. All this was happening absolutely independent of any human intelligence or involvement. I just happened to be standing in a particular place on one of these rocks, which enabled me to see the passage of another rock in a way that seemed remarkable from my perspective, but which was utterly ordinary and utterly independent of my witnessing of it.

But still: Can you even speak of an “eclipse” without someone to witness it? From another perspective an eclipse is just the passage of a shadow, falling on a planet and moving across its surface as its moon continues in its orbit, as it always has. 

From yet another perspective an eclipse is a planet moving into the shadow that is always there, but which only becomes visible when there is something for it to fall on. 

Or perhaps it only becomes an “eclipse” if there is someone, an observer, an intelligence of some kind, on that planet, looking up from within that shadow and seeing the Moon blot out the Sun.

Yet what sense does it make even to speak of “shadows” in empty space, where there is nothing to reveal the absence of light by “interrupting” it? A shadow in space: A kind of double negative. The space of no-light but also of no-ground to reveal that there is no light in that particular area of no-thing. If we imagine no observer there to witness it, the situation becomes a triple negative.

Can you even imagine “no observer”? A kind of imagining oneself happens even in that imagination, projecting oneself in space, observing the absence of light in an imaginary cone of darkness, then imagining the removal of oneself from that scenario. I find that I can still detect the ghost of an observer in this imaginary picture: That I have merely moved my imaginary witnessing self from one place to another place, farther off. As if backing myself up for a better view. 

the light
falling across the space
between buildings

What became clear to me, over the years following our trip to Ontario, was that the experience of the eclipse had changed me somehow. It had widened my perspective on both space and time, taking me “out of myself.” It had given me a vivid, concrete reminder of just how tiny I am, how small we all are on the surface of this planet, and how brief our time of witnessing is.

We are small and brief, we observers. The universe wheels on around us, revolving and blazing forth. We are not separate from it: We are part of that motion, expressions of that energy. We are of one substance with the rock we stand on. But we are also not the center of the action, either physically or logically; we are just one part. The show goes on, with us and without us.

It took me time to recognize all this, but that day was the start of something. As the celestial wheels turned, they also started something turning within me. What it was exactly would not become clear for several years.

The Dharma Seal of Plum Village is “I have arrived, I am home.” It means happiness is possible. Freedom is possible. Right now. Right here.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Each of your breaths, which measure your existence, is a pearl, and each of your atoms is a guide to God. Farid ud-Din Attar

Fifth Sun

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend

Cover of Fifth Sun

Camilla Townsend has pulled off a remarkable magic trick in this book, reconstituting the Mexica empire with an amazing level of detail and sensitivity. It makes the Aztecs feel like a real people, with a vibrant and complex culture, instead of the cartoon figures that I pictured them as before.

Two things stand out to me: One, her account covers the Mexica (and more broadly all Nahua-speaking peoples) before, during, and after the Spanish conquest. The empire centered in Tenochtitlan was not the beginning of these people’s history nor was the conquest their end. Instead, the empire and the conquest were massive turning points, but she emphasizes that the people stretch back thousands of years before it and continue to this day.

Two, Townsend relies heavily on actual, first-person accounts written in Nahuatl by people who lived within a generation or two of the conquest — people whose grandparents were eyewitnesses to the invasion. These accounts allow the Nahua people to speak for themselves, through Townsend, and the resulting picture is vastly different than histories written from the POV of the invading Spanish, or from archeologists who look only at artifacts.

I am not a historian nor do I know much about Mexican history or the history of the Aztecs, so I can’t evaluate this book critically. Still, I can tell you that it’s a terrific history and a well-written story, and it makes the people of the Valley of Mexico come alive, in all their glory, beauty, terror, anger, despair, and resilience.

View all my reviews

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