"A total solar eclipse is the most transcendent experience in Nature.” So claimed one astronomer and avid eclipse chaser in a presentation last spring.
Really? I missed the 1979 eclipse because I thought it was too much trouble to leave the Willamette Valley and get out from under a February overcast. So 38 years later, and with 60 personal trips around the sun, I decided to take this eclipse more seriously. The place for my potential transcendence had been chosen with great care 45 minutes before totality: a wide spot in the gravel at the intersection of Oak Hill and Corvallis Roads, just south of my old stompin' grounds in Monmouth, Oregon, nearly centered on the path of totality.
I tried to muster an attitude of reverence as the midmorning light dimmed, the air cooled on my bare arms, and I gazed over a fallow field of dry dirt and weeds. A poison oak hedge towered six feet high on my right. A filbert orchard slouched behind me toward the Coast Range in the west. I contemplated the looming poison oak. I’m not sensitive to it, but it would obstruct my view of the southern horizon. Briefly I thought about moving, then finally grabbed a cushioned pad from the car trunk, threw it onto some baked stubble at the edge of the road, and tried to get myself comfortable and into the correct frame of mind. As usual many frames flashed haphazardly across my mind. I hoped that when the time came, I could choose the appropriate one.
Around 10 o’clock, a van with four people pulled into the gravel. My frame of mind became please don’t park here. Only fifteen minutes remained before the most transcendent experience in nature, and these poor folks were looking for the Rogue Farm. It was two miles to the east.
“Why don’t they have signs?”
“I don’t know, why don’t you ask them when you get there?”
The van backed onto the pavement and sped north.
Cool twilight pressed in. Through my eclipse glasses, Sun became Moon, an orange crescent that looked as though it was rising through a haze of wildfire smoke, and waning as if on time lapse. Music rose from farm buildings to my left. Country music. Loud and tinny. The transcendent kind.
A new frame slid into place. It was Cat Stevens.
"Oh, I'm bein' followed by a moonshadow …"
The ting and strum of the guitar fills were clear in my head, soothing and settling. There’s a lot of uncertainty about what Stevens meant with those lyrics. Certainly no one has said he was writing about an eclipse, although for the week leading up to this the tune had been on eclipse playlists around the country. I began to think Cat was Sun being chased by Moon, and Moon was now rapidly overtaking and engulfing him. The sky darkened and became an upside-down bowl of ripe blueberries, the rim a lush 360-degree tinge of tangerine, a pan-horizon sunset. A few timid stars appeared. Moon closed over Sun. I ripped off my eclipse glasses and barely caught the first diamond ring bursting from the lower left of the corona.
"Leapin' and hoppin' on a moonshadow …"
My next mind frame was no frame at all, only the fuzzy arms of the corona flailing from the edges of Moonshadow, as though Sun were struggling furiously against the pressure of Moon against his chest. My mouth might have mirrored that gaping lunar donut hole. The crowd at the cemetery down the road cheered. I think I understand this, even if I’m not sure what they were cheering for. I hope this was an outpouring of primal wonderment and not simply an expression of appreciation for good entertainment. That seething corona was not for anyone’s entertainment. Rather, it drew forth the rawest form of awe, something worthy of meditation, perhaps the rawest form of meditation. Maybe this was why I had chosen to be alone. Maybe this was why I often choose to be alone.
I was nearly dumbstruck, but the words “Oh my god!” escaped like hot gas into the twilight. The subject is lower case. My utterance might have been a prayer from my deepest insides, but I can’t tell you which gods or goddesses I was addressing. Was it to Moon: Nikkal, Napir, Neith, Nephthys, Luna, Trivia, Bulan, Fati, Ixbalangque, Alignak, or Pah? Or to Sun: Arrina, Amun, Atum, Aten, Amaterasu, Eos, Helios, Malina, or Sol? Or some combination of these two celestial deities now conjoined above the weed patch in front of me, say God or Universe? The subject is lower case also because I’m not sure I know the difference between a prayer and a spontaneous outpouring of awe. Could there be anything more deep seated and intentional than unadulterated awe?
For a few moments I looked away, tried to take in all that was happening around me: the few midmorning stars, the circle of sunset, the twilight. But that corona. I was fused to it, those diffuse, dancing, lashing, thrashing, super-heated gasses one million degrees hotter than the surface. Two wavering arms reached particularly far into space. I know nothing of astronomer Francis Bailey, but his Beads were there, too, a few incandescent pearls around the perimeter of the shadow, sunlight squeezing through irregularities in the lunar landscape.
"And if I ever lose my eyes, if my colours all run dry …"
A new frame slid into place. The corona became the strands of my friend’s brain cancer, feathery tracks of pathogenic cells fluttering outward into his cerebellum. And like Sun, with his light leaking out around Moon’s edges, my friend is more than a two-dimensional circle of blackness surrounded by cancer. He is a fully formed, multidimensional, multiangular person with a unique and beautiful history who is suffering because a group of oddly formed cells has gone rogue inside his skull and is threatening to eclipse him. If only that mass within his head could disappear as easily as this corona would very soon become invisible to me. He could used some transcendence.
Moon began to lose her grip. The incandescent skin around her shadow thickened over the upper right edge. A white jewel burst from the corona, the second diamond ring. My dark glasses, held forgotten in my right hand for over two minutes, somehow found their way over my eyes. Totality was over.
Was this “the most transcendent experience in Nature”? It’s an odd question, really. Our experiences are a collection of unique moments in time that defy our attempts to measure one against the other. Decades later I can still see and hear and feel that early morning in the mountains near Bella Coola, British Columbia, when I sat above a rushing stream in a lush coastal rainforest and spied on a pair of Harlequin Ducks negotiating the plunging water, their striking white-on-gray-on-russet plumage glistening in the sun that rose above the eastern ridge. It was an earthbound moment and completely transcendent. So I’m opting out on any “scala transcendae.” Instead, how about an accumulation of lasting deposits in our memory bank? For as long as I have an account, I will not forget that morning when Moon transformed Sun into Sauron’s eye, a glowing coal in the darkened sky.