The temperature began to drop, the light to dim. Not like ordinary sunrise or sunset, with their warm pink and orange streaks. This light was chill, gray, eerie, as if someone was turning down a celestial dimmer switch. Through my eclipse glasses, the sun’s bright crescent grew smaller and smaller. We and our neighbors in Solartown, a temporary community camped on a farmer’s huge field in Madras, Oregon, watched with rapt attention, occasionally gasping or cheering.
The field was divided into rows of 20’ by 20’ plots, two rows back to back separated from the next two by “streets” wide enough to drive down. The squares were natural green grass, the grass between them and on the streets dry brown, a feat accomplished by some magic I’m curious about but don’t really want to know. Next door to my wife Martha and me resided Carolyn and Jean, dear friends and writers with whom I had traveled to Ireland last fall, and Jean’s older sister Sue. Over the weekend we shared food, shade, stories, wonder – as three of us had almost a year ago in Ireland’s sacred Boyne Valley, on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, at Brigid’s cathedral in Kildare.
We had feared that Solartown, with its thousands of inhabitants gathered from all over the country and the world, would be like a rowdy state park on steroids. In fact, our community was friendly, companionable, collaborative, nourishing – and quiet at night. The place was an unexpected refuge from the events of the week before, the horrors of Charlottesville and the President’s overt embrace of white supremacy.
On Sunday night, the night before the eclipse, after lying all afternoon in our tent or the shade of our sturdy metal-framed canopy to escape blistering heat, Martha and I ventured out for an early dinner at one of the food trucks arrayed on one side of the camp. As we sat at a folding table waiting for the truck’s crew to finish prepping the next batch of salmon tacos, we talked with a young Black woman with long dark hair, golden brown eyes and an adorable gray miniature poodle tucked under her arm. We talked about her dog, where we lived, what work we did. “I signed up for a professional conference in Boston,” she told us, “but I’m afraid to drive across the country. You two could do it, but I don’t feel safe. I’ll find something closer to home.”
“You’re right to worry about that, and it’s terrible that you have to,” I responded.
She left, and an Asian-American grandmother with a sore hip sat down carefully. She and her son and daughter-in-law, like many others, were going to sleep in their car in the day-use parking lot. “There weren’t any plots left. I’m not sure my physical therapist will like it, but what am I going to do?” She shrugged and smiled.
As we stood in line to order at last, a short, gray-haired white man wearing a NASA cap came up behind us. Sensing that we were about to ask for his professional guidance about the eclipse, he quickly made it clear that he was on vacation and that, when not on vacation, he was involved in climate science, not astronomy. That evoked a new set of questions: what was it like to work there under Trump?
“I have to state that whatever I say is my personal opinion; I’m not speaking in an official capacity.” Then he assured us that, while the titles assigned to the work he and his colleagues are doing may have changed, they are still doing it, despite threatened budget cuts. I breathed more easily and thanked him.
We finished our dinner, walked back to our campsite, and watched the vivid orange and pink sunset over Mt. Jefferson to the west, Mt. Hood to the northwest. We brushed our teeth, waited in porta-potty lines that grew ever longer as thousands more people arrived, looked up at thousands of stars that we can’t see in Seattle, slept in the normal darkness of night. Woke early, checked in with our friends and neighbors, ate breakfast in bright sunlight and rising heat, and waited. Finally it all began, the inexorable movement of the moon’s dark edge between us and the sun’s orange orb. Our bodies thrilled in anticipation.
As the dark chill deepened, we stood between rows of tents, carefully protected eyes fixed on the sun. Then everything went black.
We took off our glasses. In front of the sun, a huge black disk. Around it, against a dark blue sky, glowing white filaments flowed out in all directions. At the horizon, faint blue light, full-circle.
At the center, complete darkness. Behind it, light so strong that, under normal circumstances, we can’t look at it. The light of life. Temporarily blocked. The image still shines in my mind, in the space behind my eyes.
The light is never gone, even when it feels dark and cold.
The dance of sun, moon and earth predates us by eons. It will endure for eons after us.
At this time, this tiny fraction of time in the universe that feels like forever to us, we are enveloped by darkness. Our light appears eclipsed by forces of unspeakable evil.
The eclipse lasted two minutes. Afterward, in dim gray light, Carolyn and I hugged hard and sobbed.
It’s hard to believe we will ever emerge from the shadows we inhabit.
Now I know. We will.
To read Carolyn Brigit Flynn’s account of our adventures in Solartown, click here.