Taking Twilight’s Measure

I read Annie Dillard’s weird and transporting essay “Total Eclipse” last summer, at a writing residency in Wyoming where I spent a lot of time swimming in place in a very cold mountain creek. I spent those swimming afternoons mostly talking with an artist at the residency, a woman who became an instant friend. We lived on opposite sides of the country, our lives didn’t resemble each other’s very much except that we both had worked as adjuncts, and we loved to swim in the creek. First gasping from the shock of cold then settling in, paddling. We swam it in every day, even the day we left, mid-September, when a light snow was falling and the water was so cold it burned. We imagined a pagan muse living in the reeds by the swimming hole and drew an icon of her, printing it on a giant press with the rest of our artist neighbors, slicking green and black ink onto the plates.

The Dillard essay is perfect, as far as I’m concerned. It starts in regular life, with hotel décor and traffic information. And it slips, quick as the moon, into a realm of silvery weirdness that borders on insanity. It hovers there long enough for you to lose your mooring, and then slides on and lets the regular light come back.

I happened to be, this summer, at another residency—also in Wyoming, and situated on the very same creek that I dunked and paddled in last year. We are just outside the path of totality, and as a group we talked about driving to Casper for the day. The town was hosting a city-wide festival, you could buy a parking spot on a scenic ski resort mountain for around a hundred bucks, or you could park at the event center for twenty.

The day before the eclipse, the sky was white all day. Smoke from the wildfires in Montana blew in, and seemed to sit down right on top of us. It felt like an emergency, the smoky smell and tickled throat, but the thing about this part of Wyoming is that there aren’t that many people around, so you have to decide for yourself what constitutes an emergency. I drove half an hour into town to gauge the locals’ anxiety level—it was non-existent, so I decided to try to feel fine. I got a haircut in a Walmart, because I needed one badly, and felt silly about driving all the way in just to try to observe feelings. I was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of the moon, and the stylist started talking to me about the eclipse. The population of the state was going to double, or triple. People were coming from all over, the Department of Transportation was implementing all sorts of rules for the usually spacious highways. The people were going to flood in and stare at the sun and maybe go blind, or maybe go nuts. “A guy I talk to,” she said (and I loved the opacity of this) “says the police are stocking up on body bags.”

Our whole group decided to stay put: we’d heard the traffic warnings and everyone wanted to hunker down, to paint and write and just step outside their studio briefly to check out the orbs and shiver.

I went with two women to a nearby lake, surrounded by red hills. If you’re up high, the hills look like giant ripples of sand under water, and you can easily imagine them being carved by water or ice, so long ago it hardly bears thinking about. The earth here turned red, someone told me, when lightning struck the buried coal seams and set the subterranean minerals burning. It’s a good place to think about the movement of the planets and enormous units of time.

(But where isn’t, really? The same sort of facts exist about the ancient rivers of New York City or any given swamp.)

Why write about an eclipse, when Annie Dillard did it already, so perfect and weird; Virginia Woolf did it too, so delicate and morbid.

We three sat in the gravel for a couple of hours watching the light change and the dark blue water go gray. The highway emptied and the insects stopped, and it was so quiet, except for a family with a shrieking baby somewhere else on the shore. Our shadows got translucent, the artist noticed. And she said other things about the quality of the light, using her expert’s vocabulary. It was strange to get a twilight’s measure of light coming from straight overhead instead of slanting in from the horizon.

I swam in the lake, where I’d swum the year before with my fast friend. Thought about how the cold water had seared her into my memory, how the eclipse would likely do the same with these two. How we’re wired for novelty, how much easier it is to remember what’s strange.

I put the Annie Dillard book on table on the porch with a note that others should read it if they wanted. Someone else brought another book to share, a coffee-table book with art that humans have made about eclipses since way back, before you could put them on the calendar and plan an afternoon with special glasses, when the whole affair would be a mystery or a terror.

Back in the studios, others had also drawn the eclipse, painted it, scribbled notes about it. Not to make anything perfect, but because none of us could resist.

Rachel Riederer is co-editor-in-chief of Guernica magazine. She is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her essays and journalism focus on science, culture, and environmental justice. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Mother Jones, Best American Essays, and others. She hails from Kansas City, and tweets here.