After it’s all over, as we pack up chairs and head down the ridgeline to the truck, my Dad says to me that he thinks we’re here to bear witness. That’s what it’s all about, religion and the rest of it, we’re here to bear witness. My eyes are weepy and itchy, the hollow part of my chest carved out, and even still I disagree.
That morning we all knew just where we’d go, to the lookout on the ridgeline above the second gate. From there you can see the whole Fossil valley wrinkling its way out to Mt. Hood, just barely visible in the washed out blue color of the sky. Even the night before the air hung thick in anticipation, and as we pack up the truck it’s almost unbearable—it feels a little like we’re choking on it, the excitement and the wonder and the faintest hint of fear. Once we reach the top of the ridge we begin the vigil of watching for it. Through the black of the glasses we can see the sun, hanging like a giant egg yolk in the sky. We check every few minutes, our nerves getting the best of us. Has it started, someone asks, as I stare up at it again.
Finally, yes. There it is. The first, tiny blip on the corner as the moon slides into view. It seems an eternity as the moon slowly swallows the sun whole, a lifetime spent watching as the sun becomes a banana, a fingernail. We notice it around us, the air slowly leached of its warmth. A dead, eerie silence that presses in hard against our bodies. No birds, no insects, no wind, no dog whines or people’s voices. It makes some of us laugh, so nervous are we in the face of this kind of quiet.
It gets colder and colder. The light becomes insubstantial even as it goes golden, a mimicry of the gossamer hour just before twilight but without the thickness—without the texture—of that time of night. Slowly, slowly the moon swallows the sun.
We want to see the shadow. We want to see it coming and we also don’t, because how could you watch that which might destroy you? We know it’s coming, and yet we may not like what we’ll find. This is it—the mystery of it—this is what we came for. When it first appears I don’t understand what’s happening. The Mountain—that mountain, our mountain—the one whose outline is etched into the marrow of my bones, disappears entirely. It is eclipsed. It is in the shadow of the moon, and then the shadow comes for us.
The day begins to unravel completely. It unravels around us and we watch it happen, the sky along the horizon turning the purple-grey of deep dusk, making the farthest hills disappear. The Mountain appears again, this time on fire as its backlit in shades of sunset. The shadow starts rolling towards us, covering the valley in an unnatural shroud as it unfurls across the land. I look back to the sky just as the moon continues her slow ascent into the face of the sun, and we turn our faces in awe to this dark black god, crowned in a silver corona—winking and flashing in the otherwise dark. A planet, or maybe just a star, hangs low and out of place above the horizon, and the lights of Fossil glitter in the distance.
I can hear my sister laughing but feel tears on my own cheeks. It’s so weird, it’s so weird, we repeat like a mantra. It is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.
It seems the briefest moment before it begins to reel back in again, the return of daylight announced by a sparkling flash on the edge of the ring around the moon. My Mom, back in Portland, has told us to watch for this moment: the diamond ring. Mt. Hood is illuminated again with startling clarity—as if it were the most perfect sunrise, the clearest alpenglow—and then fades back into the dusty blue of midday while we’re just stretching out of twilight. The sky becomes a ceiling, as if we’re sitting under an enormous dome, as the sun emerges. It’s maybe because the horizon is still ringed with the vestiges of last light, it’s maybe because my animal brain is trying so desperately to reconcile what I know with what I see: this morning’s sunrise turned to day, turned to twilight, turned to night, turned back to sunrise and then daylight, all in a matter of hours.
We wait until the heat has come back before we go, all exclaiming to various degrees what a long strange trip it’s been. I think we needed to feel the strength of the sun on our skin to believe it will all be alright. Everything is back as it should be, the sun a dazzling white burst in the sky, the moon hidden until night. Then we’re hot, and suddenly tired, and it’s time to go back to the ranch.
This is when I had to disagree, even when I wasn’t sure how, in that moment, to articulate just what I was feeling. It’s true that we are here to bear witness, but it’s not the whole truth, that’s the problem. It rankles under my skin, eats away at my heart, because I know that I am not separate from the world by virtue of being human. I don’t feel chosen, I don’t think any of us are. No higher power—no God, no universe, no great power of love—said to stand back and watch as the world unfolds in all its splendor before us. Appreciate this fine work! We do, but only because we are creatures made for wonder. I have lived a life defined by small moments of wonder: in times of sadness and joy, melancholy and magic. But as I have borne witness to the world, I can’t help but feel it’s also bearing witness to me.
I often imagine a blanket. An infinite weaving of tiny, infinitesimal strands, each glittering and shining as it makes up the whole. Every blade of grass, every juniper berry on the tree, every shorthair, every deer, every elk, every field mouse, every drop of water, and every person, is a strand. I risk taking the metaphor too far, but imagine then that some of these are cross-strands—so that cutting one frays the whole—or that patterns swirl across the surface, and cutting strands mars the surface of the weaving. Perhaps this is the relative weight of our existences, all of us greater than the sum of our parts even as we each play different roles in the whole. I think this is how we are all connected, at the very fiber of our beings. We’re all knotted into the thing next to us.
The meaning of it all—everything, that which we bear witness to and that which bears witness to us, religion, all the rest of it—is in the mystery. This is why I think so many people were drawn to the possibility of true dark in the middle of the day, the path of totality of the eclipse. Mystery—that which we can grasp with our brains but not with our hearts—is the true pulse of our lives. I learned it from Annie Dillard, I learned it from Flannery O’Connor, I learned it in every moment I felt my heart beating to burst at every summit, every sorrow, every moment of desperate compassion.
We all came out shivering after the shadow, reminded that we live on a rock in existences we don’t understand. I know the science behind it, I know what’s happening. And yet, even still, it doesn’t feel rational at all. Plunged into twilight just after sunrise—it’s just the kind of thing that reminds me that it’s everyone, everything, all together.
I don’t know why I’m here, I don’t know why any of us are. I have reasons I want to believe. But all I really know how to do is trust the strength of the weaving, to disturb as little as possible and remember that the bright red of my strand is glittering where it lies as a part of something much larger than myself. I find the pockets of mystery—moments of deep, shadowy unknown—to sink into, to worship. To remember, to remind.