Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Total Eclipse of the Sun

At the time of the solar eclipse I'm reminded of a chapter in one of my favorite books by Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk. This is an excerpt from the chapter called Total Eclipse. I'm fascinated by how eclipses strike such fear in some people, how everything turns platinum, and by the fact that there are usually screams when the sun disappears.

"....The sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen.

I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightness and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. The color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle ages.
I looked at Gary. He was in the film, Everything was lost. He was a platinum print, a dead artist’s version of life. I saw on his skull the darkness of night mixed with the colors of day. My mind was going out; my eyes were receding the way galaxies recede to the rim of space.
From 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 of the brain slammed. Abruptly it was 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....

I have said that I heard screams….it was this, I believe, that made us scream.
The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that the shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense to this sort of speed-- 1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight-- you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthesia shoot up your arm. You can feel the appalling inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.
This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loosed spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.
Less than two minutes later, when the sun emerged, the trailing edge of the shadow cone sped away. It coursed down the hill and raced eastward over the plain and dropped over the planet’s rim in a twinkling. It had clobbered us, and now it roared away. We blinked in the light. It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the earth’s face.

We all hurried away. We never looked back. From the depths of mystery and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home."

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