In The Path Of Totality

In April of this year, the shadow of the moon touched the Pacific Ocean and swept across North America. The total solar eclipse passed through the state of Maine, very close to the home of writer and Dark Mountain editor Neale Inglenook. Here he recounts the experience of stepping into the shadow of a planetary body and feeling the direct contact with a presence outside our world.
is a writer and student of traditional hand skills. He is a contributing editor to the Dark Mountain Project, and his essays and fiction can be found in the pages of its books. He was an artistic fellow at Robinson Jeffers' Tor House in 2022.

We stand on a snowy hillside in the bright spring sun. Mirrored glasses at the ready. The kids excited to be released from their car seats and by the festival atmosphere, the hundreds congregating with their camp chairs and cameras, the cars lining the roadside for miles in either direction. Before us the spears of conifers march down the hill into the valley. Leafless stands of oak and maple ring wide lakes, glimmering white. Grey slate mountains, mottled with patches of snow, rise on the other side of the valley, beyond which lies another country.

We have driven two hours from where we live on the coast of Maine, up the river canyon into these western mountains, to view a celestial event. Around us are people who have traveled vast distances to be here, including a close friend of mine who flew from California. The weather in Maine, it is said, is set to be the best.

Chairs pressed into the mushy snow, devices affixed to tripods and aimed at the sun, the crowd commences to party as if tailgating before a game, as if waiting for someone to sing the national anthem. The kids run in circles, laughing maniacally.

The time it will begin is set to the minute, everything precisely calculated. It will take hours for the event to complete. The spring breeze rides up out of the valley, cool over the snow, the season’s pleasant sun warming our coats.

At the appointed moment, a greying of the light. Something askew in the tint of the sun on the snow. We put on our glasses, which are utterly opaque, suddenly blinding us to the bright world. We turn our heads up toward the place where we remember the sun hanging in the sky. A tiny white dot hovers in the midst of the black, a perfect circle, except for an arc that has been carved away.

The barely contained wildness intensifies in the crowd, voices louder, arms waving and gesturing, nowhere for anyone to put this strange feeling that pervades the very air. Something both essential and commonplace in our daily lives is being steadily and inexorably reduced. The day is becoming a shadow of the day. 

Into this space I read Annie Dillard’s essay ‘Total Eclipse’ out loud. She tells us there will be screaming. That the light will be that of a black-and-white film shot in the Middle Ages. That we will only dimly recall the life that we loved. I try to keep my voice steady. Our four-year-old curls under a towel, exhausted by anticipation.

*

Long a watcher of the moon, I follow its cycles, and often go out to places where I can see it rise from the horizon, taut and golden. I have woken to see this pocked bone circle turn to the red of rusting iron as it passes through the shadow of the earth. Its sharp sickle of light is a companion in my days and nights.

Still, approaching this event I have primarily felt a gut-level terror. Like my anxiety at the opacity of the future, I fear an unknowable massive presence approaching. I do not feel prepared to pass through that darkness or bring the children through it.

The irreverent voice of our culture would explain away this feeling with calculations of the trajectories of dead spheres in space. Dillard’s prose can be read as hyperbole:

‘With great effort we recalled some sort of circular light in the sky, but only the outline. And then the orchard trees withered, the ground froze, the glaciers slid down the valleys and overcame the towns. If there had ever been people on earth, nobody knew it.’

Yet what Dillard is trying to convey is the intensity of the moment, to induce an experience in the reader like her own. And this is what makes my chest seize, the thought that we plan to stand and wait for just such a dark terror to overcome us. My earthly body feels the sucking vacuum deep down, the hungry void.

*

‘And then the sun is gone,’ writes ecophilosopher David Abram in Becoming Animal. Standing in an alpine valley he watches the sun descend behind a peak, feels ‘stillness everywhere, as though the world itself teeters on the edge; a great transformation is afoot.’

It is the approach of the mountain’s shadow. We think of shadows as tacked to our feet like Peter Pan’s, an afterthought, an unremarkable effect of an object in light. But our shadows emerge from us and fill the spaces under us, sweeping a cool touch over the soil and blades of grass. ‘The shadow,’ writes Abram, ‘this elegant enigma, is always with us… an inescapable consequence of our physicality.’ Our shadows are our bodies, an inextricable voluminous extension of them. As bodies in light, we stretch out beyond ourselves with shadow.

As bodies in light, we stretch out beyond ourselves with shadow.

In that valley with darkness coming on, Abram senses bodily the chthonic world into which he is passing, filled to brimming with the smells of the forest’s ferment and decay, the ‘darkly laughing scent of cool water.’ He is crossing into ‘the country of shadow,’ where ‘a vast and brooding presence’ steadily approaches, ‘the breathing body of the mountain itself.’

A shadow is an absence, a blotting out of light by the physicality of a being. But also a presence, the body of the being extending as the shadow. An enigma Abram calls it, and it is like the ‘dark-female-enigma’ in Lao Tzu, the concept of the Tao as a pregnant absence. 

I learn this from David Hinton, translator and interpreter of ancient Chinese poetry and Taoist cosmology, who lives just west of here in the mountains of Vermont. In his book Hunger Mountain, he tells us that the ancient Chinese graph that gives Lao Tzu his ‘dark-enigma’ shows two silk cocoons hung beneath the surface of a dye. The white orbs brim with potential transformation of worm to wing, of thread to silk, subsumed in the thick blackness. Presence enfolded in absence. Absence ready to burgeon forth with presence, a thread of silk forever changed.

‘Night is falling,’ writes Hinton from his mountain, ‘earth’s shadow slowly turning the stream’s still black pool blacker still.’

*

Nightly it occurs. The great body of the Earth revolves and casts its shadow over us. Our own shadows are swallowed up by it, melded with it. We are within the Earth as much as upon it. ‘The mammoth shadow of the earth, as it overtakes us,’ Abram says, ‘carries us out of ourselves into Earth’s own awareness.’

The sun’s light cast upon us in our days, the Earth’s shadow of our nights: our quotidian cycles, the rhythms upon which our existence depends. Likewise the moon rides across our sky, pale orb awash in blue or sliver of bone among distant stars. Its gravity sweeps across the surface of the world, drawing along the tides. At once, being enveloped by the moon’s shadow is rare enough to draw people from across the world to experience it. A gravity that draws us down to the shore of the known, to let that ink-black tide wash over us.

*

The sun continues to dim. It’s like those times in California when the wildfire smoke was bad, some days dark as a smouldering twilight. But there is no orange tinge of fire now – the light is cold, blue-grey like ash. The air cools, colder, then colder still.

The light of our world is going out. A bright planet appears below and to the right of the sun, a weird morning star.

We have not brought our own chairs. We crouch in the snow or sit on a beach towel soggy with rotten ice. The kids stare up in their mirrored glasses sent to us from across the world for this occasion.

A shade cloth is descending over our sun. It is nearly gone. We look east across the valley with its lakes, the furring of conifers black-green, the snow-runneled peaks, and see the shadow coming for us.

We look east across the valley and see the shadow coming for us.

Silent as nightfall, with unearthly speed it comes, flowing over the mountains to the west, over the valley and lakes and us and the hill and all the people. Purple twilight engulfs us. The lakes turn to shimmering mercury. The forests go black , the mountains lavender. The sky is a gradient of venous blood. All the horizon is sunrise, all beyond is on fire. We are in an indigo world of throat-closing cold. 

The sun in this world has a black well at its centre and is crowned in white ice-fire. I am seeing a black hole. The darkness at the centre of the sun has depth – it is a depthless well of darkness, into which all light pours. The pregnant darkness of absence, the hungry void that swallows even light. 

The people cheer and then fall silent. All around is silence, as if light itself has a voice, now muted. It might be the people around us on the hill are sending up their voices – I cannot hear them.

We stare up into a sky dyed black, only the barest sliver of the white cocoon visible before it will be finally submerged. We are in the darkness of absence, the shadow of presence. The ravenous shadow of a planetary presence. An unimaginably vast presence is casting its shadow over us. We are within it. We are within the body of the moon as it casts its presence upon the Earth.

*

Then it has passed over. The light comes flooding back from the smallest exposure of the sun. A world lit by only a sliver of the sun is more like our normal world than that proper darkness. It is with the deepest relief I meet that commonplace light.

We travelled a few hours by car. Many traversed the continent, the globe, to experience this. That it only lasted three and a half minutes is a precious mercy.

As Dillard predicted, everyone immediately begins to collect themselves and depart. The show is over. The lakes have regained their spring snowmelt shimmer. The light is all but normal now, though the sky to the east is still shaded cobalt, the shadow continuing its sweep through the atmosphere. 

We have crossed a kind of threshold, though into what it is hard to say. The movements of the planets have been laid raw and bare, pressed down upon us in the form of the titan shadow of the moon. We sit looking, exhausted and dumbstruck, at the emerging sun.

The eclipse shadow passes to the east. Photo: Neale Inglenook

Later, night will come as regular as ever. The people in their cars will turn on their lights, make their way in a snaking line down the roads through the mountains, disperse into the countryside, at last come to rest like embers going cold in the dark.

At home, I will go out into the silent woods, all the shadows of oak and fir, tamarack and pine, poplar and maple, melded with Earth’s shadow, subsumed in it. The air still and heavy with dew. Caught in the black net of branches is the crescent moon, a bone knife with a razor edge, the light going ragged on crags and craters before being swallowed in depthless shadow.

 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 25

Our Spring 2024 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself.

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