Thoughts on Preservation
August 21, 2017. Silverton, Oregon – In the fifteen minutes leading up to totality, the thing that you really started to notice was the moderate change in temperature. To me, it was not necessarily cold – no colder than the brief chill brought on by a passing breeze – but you detect that the quiet air is simply no longer as warm as it should be, especially for this time of day. If you’re looking through your Eclipse glasses, you know the sun has now taken on the shape of a waning crescent on its way to becoming a new sun, an overdrawn grin smiling from the darkness. There’s no time anymore to grab a jacket.
About five minutes later, you begin to notice a definitive change in the ambient light. At this point, it’s still very subtle. Camped in a field of half-dead and faded-gold grasses and pale flowers, surrounded by tents and green trees dappled with red and yellow accents on the leaves, my eyes picked up increasingly pervasive shadows. Like blurring a drawing and then refining the more important outlines, an unseen artist puts the finishing touches on the spectacle before darkness sets in. The light itself filters from an amber glow to a metallic definition of bronzed over-saturation. In other words, everything you see gets a sort of inky spray tan.
As I look through the eclipse glasses and a nearby, filtered telescope one final time before totality, the moon, losing its spherical depth as it passes further over the sun, is traced by rigid, neon arcs of flashing purple and green. The latter is reminiscent of the horizon’s legendary green flash.
Nearly there, our own terrestrial horizon began to darken in the sudden onset of an incomparable sunset from every direction. At this point, cell phone photography has already failed to pick up the subtle and rapid changes, excessively brightening the scene and incapable of capturing the atmospheric shift that comes between your eyes and everything else. One thing is certain. This is not like evening. To make any comparison to an actual sun-down would be only half true. The horizon cannot quite decide whether it will settle on a tremendously deep blue, a grayish-yellow bleeding upwards into a green-blue and onwards into a dirty orange, ringed abruptly like a shadowy, multi-colored Easter egg. Every shade of visible light demands some sort of added hyphen to highlight its complexity. You almost feel as though you might be able to find a new wavelength of visible light in the belts of stark color, something utterly unknown.
Minutes, even seconds to totality, silvery-bronze becomes black as the moon slides over the sun, locked in place with all the inertia of a flipped switch or a turned key. The final twinkling edge of our star is extinguished with the flaring spark of a dying firecracker. The smile of the crescent sun becomes the dilated iris of a celestial eye. Stars and planets crisply dot the newfound darkness. Street lights turn on. The eclipse has reached totality.
A hole has opened in the sky. The shadow of the moon does not seem like an addition, something juxtaposed between Earth and sun, but a removal. Someone has taken a hole-puncher or a melon-baller and scooped a perfect circle out of the dark blue dome, opening the sky into emptiness. What is left is the deepest, darkest black you have ever witnessed and thought possible for the sky to naturally hold. Surrounding this disc, you see the coronal ejections of the sun, ghostly apparitions comparable to snow rings, the icy refractions of the sunlight in winter skies. Pale, bright arms of solar activity branch away from the disk of prominences, as solid as distant rains and somehow organic-looking in their reach – coronal streamers, the blooming petals of a solar flower or the tentacles of a space anemone. People around you cheer, but the whole world feels quiet in wait. You never quite want it to end, despite the fear inherent to the awe that accompanies such a sight.
You expect to hear some huge burst, the broken adhesion of ripped tape, as, sadly, irresistibly, a sliver of the sun reemerges with the unpleasantness of a headlight beamed straight into your eyes. You attempt to catch onto the final slivers of darkness but, in just a few moments, light is restored. The eye blinks. The sun smiles once again.
Perhaps the aptest description of the eclipse is the final, hasty line in my notes:
“Unreal unlike anything.”
At this point, you have probably seen so many pictures and heard so many descriptions of the solar eclipse that you might feel a little exhausted and disenchanted by the whole thing, particularly if you were not there for totality yourself. On the other hand, in the months since that day, you may have forgotten that the eclipse happened. As a person who was there, taking the few-thousand-mile round-trip between Arizona and Oregon, I can say that it was worth it. For less than two minutes, two minutes that felt like a blink of eternity, I was allowed to witness something truly spectacular and unique, “unlike anything.”
Leading up to the event, I had laid out certain rules for myself. First, I would take only a few quick photos and then enjoy the rest just through my bare eyes, giving the event my full attention. Second, I would pay attention to not only the eclipse itself but also any natural phenomenon that would occur during the moment of totality; I would listen to the birds tweeting off to sleep and crickets chirping and put some focus on the stars and planets twinkling forth. In essence, I would look around.
I ended up breaking both of these rules. The latter I followed to the extent that I perceived changes in my peripheral senses. Up to totality itself, I was very attentive to the shifts in atmospheric color, the drop in temperature, the street lights coming on, and other minutiae. The moment that totality struck, however, all bets were off. The experience became something purely visual, as you struggled to unveil all your rods and cones in an effort to capture and memorialize the event: the perfection of the circle, the glow of the prominences, the sheer emptiness of the hole where the moon should be. During totality, I was only vaguely aware of the stars and planets, of the color that the sky had finally settled upon, and of the fact that I was still, indeed, on planet earth. Anyone who can remember listening to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” may understand a comparable experience. So much time is spent in anticipation, with so much importance placed on the momentum of the rhythm, the waiting, that you become afraid you might actually somehow miss it all. While there may be complexity, your mind cannot avoid focusing on the pattern, the centerpiece, the climax itself.
Only one thing kept me grounded on earth, and I still cannot decide how I feel about it. Everything about totality was visual. I was all eyes, but I also knew that I had hands and a mind too. I had planned to only take photos for the first few seconds. In the moment, I kept struggling to take photos, far longer than I had wanted or anticipated. I knew that my phone camera could never capture the experience, but that simply did not matter. I was on a quest just to get a glimpse of the inner circle, just to break off a shard of its darkness so that I might be able to hold onto it forever.
Eventually, for the last half of totality, I put my phone away and simply watched. Still, I could not help but feel that I had somehow wasted that time. I should have always been just watching or I should have continued to endeavor to take a more perfect photo. Either way, the moment would slip away. Memory might not be enough. In the time that I had left, I continued watching the sky be something different than anything I had ever known. I wanted to never let it go. I looked at my watch only once, towards the end. Many around me expressed the sentiment that everything was going so quickly, especially after the eclipse had finished. Some called it the “shortest two minutes ever.” I did not feel the same way. I had not wanted it to end and, even if only for a moment, the moment after I glanced at my watch, knowing that the sun would reappear any second now, I honestly believed that it might not. Darkness remained, and I thought that it could for however long it wanted and I wanted. Quite possibly, this wonderful thing would never leave. The last few seconds felt endless. The sky might even turn on again, but there, in it, stained forever, would be a shadowy, dark spot.
Of course, the scientist in me knew that this was not true. Eclipses are spectacular. They are not supernatural. They are not “unreal,” something apart from our own world. They are not transcendent. They are ephemeral. They are entirely physical. They are a result of gravity and the resulting clockwork orbits of massive spheres of matter. Total solar eclipses are not necessarily even rare, happening on different parts of the Earth every few years. They occur elsewhere in the solar system as well, on all of the gas giants. Undoubtedly, they occur in other solar systems throughout the Universe. Eventually, bound by universal laws of gravitation, the eclipse had to end.
Things end. Things are temporary, whether a two-minute eclipse or an eighty-year life.
None of this makes a total solar eclipse any less beautiful.
No, I’m not going to now make the argument that the fleeting nature of things makes them more beautiful. I’m not going to make this argument because, frankly, I have no idea whether or not it’s true. Moreover, I am not going to make this argument because, for me, the eclipse did not change me or my conception of existence. It did not offer some total, life-changing revelation, any more than the ball-drop on New Year’s Eve ensures commitment to life-changing “resolutions.” What it did do is make me wonder. Reflection, in conjunction with the eclipse and other experiences, made me think.
During the eclipse road trip, especially while in the forests of Oregon, I saw tremendously beautiful (a word that I have already and will continue to overuse) and awe-inspiring things: Crater Lake, foggy coasts, trees upon trees. At one point, near a hotel we were staying in, there was a small beach. I was making my way over its daunting, craggy boulders, headed for the sand and the surf. The air was wet and the fog was becoming increasingly dense in the far-away, late afternoon atmosphere. Coming to the edge of the crusty, black rocks, dotted with countless small barnacles and splattered with murky tide pools, I stopped. The stretch of sand before me was different from any beach I had seen before. For a brief moment, I could not quite figure out what made it different. There was nothing remarkable about it. That was precisely it. The beach was clean and empty, smoothed by the high tide. It was untouched, shining, reflective, the gray sand as smooth as ceramic. There were no footprints on it. When was the last time you went to a beach that was only sand? No unevenness. No holes or divots or strewn miscellanea. There was no sign of anything human at all, nothing but the sea and the fog and the rock, the air full of wind and mist and salt and sand, gray and brown and blue and earthy.
My first instinct was to take a photo of the beach. I wanted to preserve its beauty. Certainly, this beach would not look quite like this again, and I would pass this way again soon. There was something so simple about its cleanness; it was barren, but like a sheet of glass its featurelessness gave way to something else. Simplicity was a thing that I had also admired about the eclipse. An awe-inspiring natural phenomenon, its beauty did not stem from detail, like the never-ending wonder of the Grand Canyon, which bombards the eye with unfathomable colors and layers. The eclipse was a simple gradient of light and dark, light giving way to darkness and then reaching through the dark black hole, stretching itself even then from the shadow of space. So too, I needed to capture the unity of this place. I took the photo, a panorama of the whole thing.
My second instinct was then to step down onto the beach. I had seen it and taken steps to preserve the memory of it. Now, I wanted to touch it. There were no footsteps on the sand. I wanted to leave my own. Standing on the rock next to my father, I hesitated as I hung my leg out over the edge, ready to climb down. I looked at the sand once again, smelled the brine, and stood back up. I decided not to walk on it. I decided that, if I did walk on it and touch it, I would destroy the very beauty that I had admired in the first place. No, I would leave it for someone else.
I turned away with my dad and walked back up the rocks towards the hotel. Before we climbed back up onto the main pathway, I turned around for one last look. Soft anger found its way into my heart, just a degree between disgust and disappointment. Someone had walked out onto the sand. They were taking photos as they left their tracks in the muddy grit. The beach was still beautiful, but not in the way that I had seen it before.
In retrospect, I should not have felt this way. The person had clearly not seen what I had seen. My desire to preserve the beach undeniably stemmed from a misguided sense of its purity; in walking on it, the woman had not destroyed it. The moment was merely gone. It had already been gone (and yet a statement like this can’t feel like anything more than trite). I could not be angry at her, any more than I could be angry at the passage of time.
The question, however, becomes: is that true? Put another way, where do we draw the line?
Why do people desire to preserve things, taking photos in the most vital hours of their lives? What do we hope to capture?
If we desire to preserve, why are we so capable of destruction? What are our standards for preservation? At what point does human destruction become something else, something unnatural? Unreal, even?
Can we preserve anything at all?
These questions might feel a little sudden. There’s a lot of them. Trust me, they are connected.
Along with the sight of the eclipse itself, the sun took on another otherworldly hue at a different point in our trip. Fires were burning across Oregon and the smoke of burning trees clogged the air, blemishing the sky in hues of oxidized orange. Driving up to Crater Lake, the smoke became so thick that I actually felt it affect my breathing, making oxygen just a little more scarce. To complete the blistering fallout of the landscape, above us, the sun glowed red, as though it had suddenly contracted into a red dwarf and the end of the world was imminent. The scarlet burn pierced the Oregon plains with a thorough, uncomfortable heat.
Fire destroys things. Often, fires are man-made, as was the case for many forest fires this summer. However, this is not always the case. Lightning may strike dry tinder and acres catch aflame. What is the difference between a natural fire and a human one?
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one of my all-time favorite books, offers an interesting complication of the question. Often, it is common to think of humanity and Nature as separate from one another. A building, being man-made, is not a part of nature. Technology, unforged by long eons and shaped instead by the narrow years of minds and thumbs, fall outside the wilderness of organic being. Nevertheless, there is something wrong with seeing everything that is human or man-made as unnatural. Indeed, when reading Frankenstein, it is useless to claim that the monster is evil or lesser because it is “unnatural,” a man-made being. Humanity, as far as we participate in the workings of the Universe, is natural.
Are we not angry when we hear that someone’s carelessness causes the destruction of countless acres?
September 13, 2017 – I was walking back to my dorm alone. Near my dorm, down alongside a lonely curve of fresh-asphalt road, a green valley opens out to the bay beyond and the ocean horizon. San Diego is a beautiful place, one where I have seen many a beautiful sunset. This evening, I may have seen the most beautiful, actual sunset that I have yet to experience in my life.
Back in Arizona, I often used to think that only there could I find the best sunsets. There, the colors of the evening sky are unrivaled. The desert firmament has a way of blending purple, orange, and red with the subtlety of J.M.W Turner and the vivacity of Van Gogh (which is actually probably a rubbish description; I have no idea of the compatibility of these artists and I’m sure that many an art history student or even people who actually know things about painting and art and human decency are scoffing at me and my unwieldy description; moreover, I am well aware that using words like scoff and rubbish make me sound pretentious, but, if you must know, I have been watching a lot of Doctor Who and I started to write this section in a British accent; keep calm, carry on, and now I will attempt to revert to American diction). However, a beautiful sunset is a different thing than a beautiful setting sun.
Tonight, there was only a thin strip of visible blue sky, walled horizontally by gray clouds above and land, sea, and city below. In the midst of the open strip, the sun descended. Red, not like blood, but like the liveliness you might imagine that a heart could contain, burning and beating by the steady warmth of a rich combustion. The sun was not the same red as the sun of a forest fire. It stood bigger in the sky, like the sphere itself was descending upon the Earth and diving into the sea, quenching itself as it sank, taking only a minute for its full diameter to set. In fact, the strip of visible sky was so narrow, only about two-thirds of the sun’s circular face was visible at any given time, arcing as it descended into the sea.
I watched. It’s always said that you should not look at the sun. This is the truth. However, I could not turn away. As vivid as the sun was, it had dimmed to the brightness of a projection in a movie theatre. It appeared like a blur. I was afraid of what might happen if I kept staring, but the spectacle invited the risk. It was a staring contest, where either I would go blind or the sky would shut its red eye first.
Fortunately, I won and then some. For years, I’ve watched the sunset hoping to see something rare and magical. While one might imagine it to be a myth, the green flash is a real atmospheric phenomenon, a result of the composition of the atmosphere and the bending of light. Tonight, in a flash, I saw the green specter hover over the sun’s final curve. As quickly as the arc sank, the flash existed for briefer a time than the blink of an eye.
It’s taken me too long to write this journal entry, to update you all on my life. I spent too much time trying to come up with a thesis, to wax philosophic on moments that were important to me. I wanted to quantify those moments and affix them with a certitude, in the same way, that we affix time with dates.
A cycle, a revolving door of ideas – that’s the closest that I can get. Nothing linear, for I’ve not only forgotten my train of thought but also the very mental tracks that I had measured and bolted down, leading somewhere. I don’t know where. I’ve lost the destination, if I ever had it in the first place. I don’t know how to get back, and I don’t know how to speak. I don’t know how I sound.
I wanted to talk about destruction. I wanted to do that so that I could talk about the thing that I value more: creating things. I wanted to talk about things. I wanted to tell stories. More will come soon, I promise.
For now, I know that things are beautiful. Things are alive. Everything is alive, with its own identity: the sky, the moon, people, fear, the water running down a shower wall. The air is colder now than it was before. The days get darker more quickly.
When I walk back to my dorm now, I listen to the trees. The flesh of the leaves has grown dry and rigid, but the wind carries their words further. The spacious leaves clap together, quiver and babble. The trees whisper. I understand how easy it is to personify everything – is that the same thing as making everything like ourselves? – and to think that dryads might emerge from the bark.
I don’t know.
It’s November. I’m a new person.
Sometimes, I listen to the trees. Sometimes, I step over the falling leaves, blistered fragments of a new cycle. Sometimes, myself, breaking off in fragments