Lessons in the moon’s shadow

How the eclipse makes you understand space, and why we should pay attention to lesser wonders.

 

Most of us who came always knew there could be fog.

Oregon’s coast is a moody place, carved by surf, stormsurge and the Earth’s seismic shivers into sea-stacks and cliffs. Its tree-covered hills are alternately woven through with cloud, or scoured to sun by gusts that sculpt branches into bonsais and stiffen your fingers with chill. Sometimes, though, it is clear and still, as if the world is tasting light for the first time, made new again while you slept. As maybe it always is. 

Those of us who came to see the total solar eclipse from the spot where the moon’s shadow would first touch the continent knew this. But we came anyway. We came from Portland. From Washington and Texas. From British Columbia and California and South Carolina. As if to bless our choice, the weekend was sunnier than any I’ve experienced on the coast. But sometime early in the morning on Monday, the day of the eclipse, a thick fog crept in. It obscured the houses across the Siletz River from where I camped in my truck, turned the toppled snags jutting from Siletz Bay into a blurred jumble of old bones. 

The news had forecast an apocalypse of weekend traffic jams on the two-lane highways that serve the narrow strip of land between the Coast Range and sea. These never came. Emergency officials had prepared for another sudden inland surge of traffic from the coast Monday morning, in the event of bad weather. This didn’t happen either.

A few miles south of the Siletz, on Fishing Rock, a promontory just north of the centerline of the path of the moon’s shadow, knots of people set up folding chairs on beaten-down grass and orange dirt. Others slept in cliff-top alcoves overlooking the sea, or sheltered beneath blankets in their cars, waiting. The fog stubbornly stuck, some left, but still more came, with tripods, sweatshirts and children. We became wraiths together in the mist, and the sun finally joined, too—a matte coin of dimmed light. We could see the moon’s first breach of its circle with our bare eyes through that screen, though we tried not to look. We failed at this. We peered at it sideways in bursts. We fell silent, or exclaimed, or messed with our eclipse glasses, which proved useless.

Clusters of people wait for the eclipse on the Fishing Rock on the Oregon Coast.
Sarah Gilman

When the sun was a thin crescent, I drove north again to the Siletz, where someone told me the fog had broken. But in the unsettling midmorning twilight, the highway was an absence lined with dark trees, my truck the only set of headlights. I found just a dozen other cars parked along the shoulder near the river. I stepped out and stood with a trio of people—mother, daughter, friend. We looked southeast. The fog dimmed to an ominous yellow. The sun a dash, then nothing. In its absence, dark descended, and the world suspended – a breath held. Streetlights flicked on across the highway. Two Vs of honking geese flapped suddenly upriver from the direction of the sea, and vanished.

“Oh this is weird,” the daughter said, from her seat in the gravel.

It was an obvious enough observation, but also just the right word. Weird: a sort of vertigo that prickled the skin and made the dirt itself feel as though it had tilted. This Earth we stand on, that feeds us and slakes our thirst and can kill us too, the sun, the moon: We were suddenly confronted with their physical reality as objects that move in relation to each other in vast space.

We know this with our minds. But how often do we know it with our bodies? Put your hand on the ground. Can you feel the Earth’s curve? Hold your hand to the sun. Can you feel its weight? From the narrow perspective of our everyday lives, the ground is a surface that objects rest upon or move across, not an object itself. The sun is warmth and brightness in the sky. The moon is also this, though if you are the ocean or a woman, you feel its pull.

But I didn’t recognize the moon as a sphere of stone suspended above my head until its shadow fell across me. In that cold and sudden dark, I felt the space between it and me as true. I felt its mass and volume. And I shivered, because when the shadow of the moon flows over you like dark water, you feel yourself as object, too, and you feel your size. And this feeling, the speckness of your body in the universe’s palm, will make the hairs on the back of your neck rise.

Just like that, it was over. The tiny dash of the sun’s other edge appeared and the fog glowed rose. Then the crescent beamed through. Then the wan coin of the sun. I watched dazed as the highway surged with strings of headlights bound north, as all the cars along the shoulder peeled away within minutes. Nothing felt normal. Shadows seemed strangely distinct, and my head swam each time I closed my eyes, as if I stood at the edge of some bottomless drop. It made me wonder about all of us across the country who came to see, whatever the conditions. Who crowded in parks and on roads and in the woods and in the desert and in our backyards, all of us looking up with rapt, shared attention.

How would we come to understand our world if we learned to turn this attention on its everyday wonders? What would we save from our own ravenous appetites? If hordes of people pulled off the highway randomly to stare at an old growth Douglas fir, if they did it to watch the way a stream carves through a canyon, or even the way a swarm of flirting gnats become a galaxy when lit by a sunbeam? 

Before I too turned inland for home, my friend Kathleen led me out onto Siletz Bay in a sea kayak. The fog had broken and we cut a line across the water towards one of the snags that had been a ghostly shape just hours before. Six large cormorants perched on its branches in perfect silhouette, their edges so sharp they looked like they had been snipped from the sky. I blinked, and they looked like 10 million years of history – the accumulation of tiny variations through generations, a dance between organism and organism, organism and environment. In the elegant curves of their necks and long backs and weird seabird feet was transcribed the shape and arc of time itself.

As we paddled closer, I expected them to spook and fly. I held my breath. They just stared back.