Monday, August 28, 2017

A Moment of Crown and Shadow


There are mountains on the Moon. The lunar surface once roiled and wriggled, driven by nuclear fire from below. That fire died long ago, and for billions of years the mountains have stood steady over the sterile gray mare. Some of these mountains are on the 90th meridians east and west. They stand at the border, one foot in land always facing the Earth, one foot facing toward the endless space beyond.

There are mountains on Earth. The furnace at the heart of the planet, fueled by the sputtering of helium and antimatter off uranium, thorium, and potassium, still glows red like an animal’s blood where it leaks through the skin. The mountains here are still in motion, thrusted up by the trembling plates that compose Earth’s crust, worn down by blowing sand and flowing water. Some of these mountains are in the Snake River watershed. They funnel the water that falls here, east of the Cascades, toward Hells Canyon and the surging Columbia River that snakes through the desert to the northwest.

Space, even as short a space as between Earth and the Moon, is an effective quarantine. The mountains astride the limb of the Moon and the mountains of eastern Oregon are indifferent to each other. In plain view of one another they are separated by an invisible and insurmountable abyss.
At the time the Moon formed it didn’t look or move as it does today. The Moon was closer and orbited faster, and Earth spun with more febrile vigor just after the cataclysm that cleaved moon from planet. The Moon’s gravity tugs harder on the point beneath it than on the point opposite Earth’s core. This tide pulls Earth into a lopsided ellipse, one lobe spun slightly forward of the Moon’s position. This applies a torque, trading spinning energy of the Earth for potential energy, altitude, of the Moon.
At the present day this long balance has placed the Moon in an elliptical orbit whose average distance results in an angular size about the same as the Sun’s in the sky when viewed from Earth’s surface. When the Moon is in the lower arc of its orbit it appears just slightly larger in the sky than the Sun. When the plane of the Moon’s orbit around Earth just happens to line up with the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and the Moon is near perigee, its shadow sweeps across the face of the Earth. This is a total solar eclipse.

As long as I can remember being aware of the concept I’ve wanted to see a total solar eclipse. I suppose a part of me just wants to do everything, or at least everything pleasant. Total solar eclipses are rare. Seeing one in spite of their rarity might give one a sense of accomplishment. They are beautiful, full of unusual phenomena not seen anywhere else in human life. At any rate, I wanted to see one.

In the fractal branches of my family tree I have an aunt and uncle who grew weary of California. They were driving on a highway full of solitude 50 miles east of Baker City and arrived where they chose to place their lives. Conveniently and unexpectedly, the site would be directly in the path of the Moon’s shadow at 10:25 AM on Monday, August 21st, 2017.

I became aware of this in the summer of 2011. At that time, tentatively, I began steering myself toward this point at this time.

That moment of awareness was once the present. Now it’s a memory. So many other futures became presents, then memories. Some treasured, some mangled, some longing for amnesia, nearly all forgotten, all those moments became pasts. I started grad school. I dropped out of grad school. I moved to Seattle. I vomited sangria on New Year’s Eve. I helped hang weights on aircraft tails to prepare them for flight test. I pressed my lips against Sarah’s. I ate communion wafers like paper and drank wine like sweet fire. My brother shot himself. I wept at his funeral. I caught the garter tumbling through the air at Sarah’s sister’s wedding. I married Sarah. I drank godawful North Korean brandy on New Year’s Eve, but didn’t barf this time. Deep within Sarah my son was conceived. I flew to Long Beach for an interview and was asked three times what I knew about geometric dimensioning and tolerancing. I moved to Los Angeles. My son was born. I stayed up late holding his little whimpering body, hoping Sarah’s program would just let her come home. I watched him grow, and smile, and walk, and speak. Sarah and I embraced, so many times remembered, many more times forgotten. One of those times our daughter was conceived. I watched parts I designed filled with fuel and fire and gas black as coal and hot as a blast furnace. I learned what unilateral renal agenesis was. I boarded an airplane, rented a truck, and drove to Oregon.

Time progressed, that is to say, and I arrived at my destination where the gravity of the Earth would see to the Moon revealing the light of the Sun’s corona. Time, gravity, light. The convergence of the elements Einstein showed were intimately and mysteriously linked in a moment of brilliance before his time on Earth ended. I know not where the time went between 2011 and 2017 but it placed me more or less exactly where I wanted to be.

Two nights before the eclipse the sky was dark and clear. Far from the cities and with the Moon closing in on the Sun there was nothing but the faint leakage of light domestic and stellar to corrupt the view toward space. Mercury shined copper-white low above where the Sun sank beneath the western hills. Later on, after the Earth turned further from the setting Sun, the dark brought out the night sky’s wonders in dazzling fashion.

I laid on the ground beneath the galaxy and my brother asked me what I thought happens when we die. I demurred. He seemed to want an answer, as do we all. That death is the end of everything and the fate of us all, with no reasonable hope of continued existence, seems to me at once the most obvious and horrible fact of life. It is obvious because my mind comes from my body, my body came from other bodies, those bodies came from the organic sludge of the Earth, and all of the above are governed by fixed and indifferent laws that leave no room beyond the madhouse for the resurrection of the soul. Should the soul find reason to exist purely from the machinations of the neurons within my skull, what reason would it have to exist after my skull’s destruction? Absurdity and obscenity. It is horrible because if death conquers the soul it’s a whole universe of existence that’s lost. Such seems apparent to me.

There followed a sort of apologetics for annihilationism and a meditation on consciousness as an illusion. My brother suspected I was not arguing in good faith when I argued that the notion that consciousness is an illusion is a non-sequitur. He had good reason to suspect so. I don’t always talk plainly. I was being unfair to him then, as I am now. My brother is a fiercely intelligent human being and a better debater than I am, but I didn’t understand how he arrived at what he was saying. We were unable to make ourselves understood.

Like ships with no wake, satellites moved silently over the face of the sky. They came from the west, north, and south, sometimes crossing the whole sky, sometimes fading to invisibility halfway as they passed into Earth’s shadow. Meteors shot through the black like flashes of inspiration on a quiet mind. The biggest ones, the size of pebbles rather than sand or dust, left faintly glowing trails of plasma, a neon record where they fell to Earth. When the conversation ebbed the sound of weaning calves longing for their mothers filled the air. There were no concluding statements. We talked, and we looked at space.

Clouds came in the afternoon the following day. They irritated me. I came to Oregon to see an eclipse, not clouds. I missed my connection to join the family on an excursion to the pine forest because I was at mass in Baker City, so I enjoyed the solitude at the house instead. In the evening sunset came.

The clouds were illuminated by sunlight bent around the limb of the Earth. Like a prism, Earth’s atmosphere bends different frequencies of light at different angles. This manifests as a tremendous chromatic aberration across the line where day becomes night. Orange like sherbet, red like blood, shadows like a bruise, all in pastel glow. It is a trick of refraction, air, light, and color perception, and it’s beautiful.

Beauty moved like an animal through the air that evening. In rustling leaves, in starlit clouds, in the feeling of grass beneath my feet, the beauty of it all seemed to jump from place to place, like a mirthful sprite. Why do we find these scenes so appealing? Perhaps there’s some survival value hidden, a pressure that says “You should enjoy this, for the good of you and your offspring.” Whatever the mechanism, this surrender to awe is one of the great pleasures of human life.

Nightfall came, and morning followed, the 21st day of August, 2017. I woke and headed to my uncle’s house. Through the eclipse glasses the Sun was round. The Moon was on a beeline to cover the disc of the Sun, but from the vantage point of Oregon limb did not yet touch limb.
The house was not exactly where we watched the eclipse. A few miles to the southeast the neighbors on a ridge overlooking the Eagle Valley were throwing an eclipse party. Our caravan trundled over, a working tuck, a rental car, and my rental truck, flanked by two ATVs. We arrived just as the Moon was beginning to nibble a chunk out of the Sun
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Several times before I’d seen partial eclipses, and once before I’d seen an annular eclipse, when the Moon was near apogee and left a ring of fire as it crossed the Sun. This was a familiar sight. Still, I felt giddy watching the Sun shrink from a Pac-man shape to a smaller and smaller crescent. When we observed an annular eclipse at the rim of the Grand Canyon my dad and I fashioned a pinhole camera from a shoebox. The camera had found its way to Oregon. Through the pinhole camera the tiny illuminated mirror image shrank in the same way it did through the eclipse glasses
Sunlight dimmed in a barely perceptible fashion for the first hour of the eclipse. Main sequence starlight is so overwhelming from 93 million miles away, and the eye and brain so skilled at contextualizing the light it sees, that you can remove 80% of sunlight without much noticeable difference. Then things get noticeable.

My brother remarked “It feels like stepping into the shade.” The sun shined but it refused to burn. With so much radiant heat from the Sun blocked by the rock of the Moon the temperature began to drop in an accelerating fashion. It grew quiet. Without the Sun driving convective motion in the air there was nothing to move a breeze, and the crowd hushed as the Sun became a sliver in the southeast sky. Finally, after it cooled and quieted, the scene darkened.

Five minutes before totality began I remarked that the shadow had made landfall and I turned my camera on to record the scene. It was darker now, the colors more dull, the shadows sharper. With a clear blue sky above us and one-one-hundredth the normal amount of sunlight still blindingly bright the foreground looked a twilight scene. I took one last look at the vanishing bow of Sun through my eclipse glasses and turned my attention to the mountains.

Light vanished, not in a moment, but in a slow fade The mountains of Oregon grew dark as the shadow of the Moon fell upon them. In the west the sky had the deep gray-blue of late twilight. The east was still bright but fading fast. In the final seconds the scene visibly darkened from one moment to the next as the great light that powers the life of the Earth blinked out overhead. Headlights and street lights in the valley below flickered on. There was a series of whoops, yelps, and a toddler squeal, and I turned to see the Sun’s corona glowing around a pitch black disc where the Sun was a moment ago.

Corona. Crown. Tenuous incandescent plasma at a temperature of two million degrees crowning with beauty and glory the star that nourishes the life of our world. It was absolutely still. Somehow I didn’t expect that. I was looking at a structure millions of miles across. Of course it appeared motionless over the course of a minute, but somehow that dynamic spherical cauldron looked more crystal, more fixed and less fluid, than I imagined. It was white, white as pure as the dress Sarah wore that day in December. It had points and tufts like a bobcat’s ears. There it was, plain as the day rendered night.

I zeroed in on the corona because I knew I would only see it for a few minutes in the entire course of my life. Let this white drill down into my memory forever, I thought. Someone said something about the horizon and I glanced away. There were no illuminated peaks around us, even the background was close enough to all be enveloped in shadow. All around, and brightest to the north, the colors of sunset were on display. There was the golden fleece of dawn all around the horizon, framing the mountains and valleys without prejudice.

I fixed my gaze on the Sun for the rest of totality. The second hand wound on. The corona, constantly in motion, shined on like a glowing white diamond. There were flashes on the edges that coalesced into a brilliant ring. These were Bailey’s beads, sunlight shining through the valleys between the peaks on the 90th lunar meridians, followed by the diamond ring effect. For a moment just a point of overwhelming sunlight shined on the western edge, and the eye and brain interpret this and the corona barely still visible as a ring of light. Then, sunlight, back in all its radiance. From start to finish, totality in Richland was one minute and 15 seconds.

What is the significance of an eclipse? In all honesty I don’t know the answer. The last scientifically important eclipse happened in 1919, when general relativity was tested for the first time by checking whether starlight behind the Sun was moved by the Sun’s gravity. So it was. Eclipses today are a matter of aesthetics, adventure, philosophy, and, as always, simple geometry.

The laws of gravity and geometry, light and relativity are such that the timing of an eclipse can be predicted with great accuracy a thousand years in the future. There are laws of chemical binding energy and genetic information flow, and there is a known structure to my brain. These relationships are more complicated than the relative motion of the Sun, Earth, and Moon, but shouldn’t they in theory be just as knowable? Doesn’t that knowability somehow wound the soul, make you little more than an odd organic robot?

Maybe that’s the true and complete story. If it is, the idea that death conquers all seems unavoidable. I am unable to rigorously dispel this hypothesis. I have chosen, however, to build my life around the hypothesis that this description of the universe given by indifferent physical law is not wrong, but incomplete. There exists an idea that love, the will toward life, the free giving of life, is not merely a thing that exists within other laws, but a fundamental property and structure of the universe. There is no way to show convincingly whether or not this is true, but it pleases my intuition and is in agreement with my experience. Anyway, I’ve bet my life on this hypothesis being true. Maybe, if it’s all true, the eclipse is a foretaste of what’s to come. When darkness comes it will be surrounded with glory, and be quite temporary, and light comes roaring back a moment later. Maybe.

Speaking more plainly, during the eclipse the mountains of the moon and the mountains of Oregon were not indifferent to each other. Across the sea of space they shouted to one another and made their presence known in the shadow sweeping across Earth and sunlight peeking around the Moon Though islands, we are part of the same whole. This is not half-baked hippy nonsense. This is the reality I witnessed in the Eagle Valley.


On a white blanket there were lines and shapes dancing as the Sun re-emerged from behind the Moon. It looked like the bottom of a disturbed pool. This was the light of the Sun, normally incoherent and overwhelming, made calm and uniform by the Moon’s surface like the knife edge in a Schlieren photography setup. That uniform light showed the swirls and eddies in the air we breathed together that morning. The shapes faded fast as the knife edge crept onward to the east. I marveled at this last beautiful sight from this remarkable conjunction, and felt the heat of the Sun on my face once again. I hugged my cousins, my aunt, my uncle, my brother, and my dad, embarked in my truck, and headed home.

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