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“Read this,” she said. So I did. She’s our professional writer and her critiques of my offerings for my biweekly RJ blogging gig sting me most. She gave me her copy, a yellowing cheap paperback that she got used somewhere. A ball-point date and name of someone neither of us knew under the cover.

That was back in November. It made me remember reading about Tinker Creek in college. It made me remember that language takes you only so far. I took it to the woods with me and wound up reading Annie Dillard with gloves on.

That sounds like a metaphor.

And again last week. Carol and I road-tripped down to Indiana to put ourselves in the path of the eclipse’s totality. We called Grace on the way down and she asked me if I had read Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse” (Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. 1982. Harper & Row). By the time we accessed the hotel Wi-Fi that evening, a pdf version was in my inbox.

Dillard’s imagination is a feral wild horse, all eye-white and froth, straining and stomping. Dillard mounts you up from the familiar and mundane and you grab fistfuls of hair from the tangled mane. She then slaps it hard on the ass and you hang on for as long as you can (or as long as you dare) as it runs for the horizon with everything it’s got.

Dillard’s method is different. She takes her day-to-day experiences, her meditations on ecological realities, her religion, and interweaves them with finespun subtlety while you settle in and nod, then something slips and the next you know, you find yourself wandering a borderlands at dusk following her bouncing flashlight in the distant woods. Faith is like that.

Dillard’s trip to see totality in 1979 began as ours did, with a five-hour road trip. She crossed the Cascades following a snowstorm to a hotel with her husband in Washington’s Yakima valley. I crossed the southern lobe of the Wisconsonian glaciation during a spring thunderstorm for a room with Carol at the eastern end of the tallgrass prairie peninsula. She and her husband settled in to watch on a hilltop. Carol and I, in a part of the world evidently without hills, found a spot at the Boone County fairgrounds.

Dillard writes of watching a disk of sky break free and overtake to block out the sun and of the path of totality racing across the landscape at impossible speed, and a remnant white ring of fire. She writes of a world with the colors sapped and wrong and of coming unmoored and knowing her reality from the other side of death. Fear and detachment combine, and the place seems almost familiar.

“What I saw, what I seemed to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world. We had all died in our boots on the hilltops of Yakima, and were alone in eternity. Empty space stoppered our eyes and mouths; we cared for nothing. We remembered our living days wrong. With great effort we had remembered some sort of circular light in the sky – but only the outline.”

For my part, I had little more than a dumb grin for Carol, grateful that she provided motivation to come and see this, and at the same time a little speechless for the experience. I disappointed myself, I had wasted much of the totality trying to capture a cell-phone picture. Totality was memory, nearly as soon as it happened, and I had made the scientist’s dumb reductionist mistake of trying to capture something significant by reducing it to digital data.

To be sure, I saw the totality, the corona and the return of daylight but I saw it as a flat projection on my retinas. I didn’t see what Dillard saw. I recognized some of it in her essay, but in a derivative sense.

We drove home into that same sun setting over gray interstate and, later having turned north, over the early-barren corn belt on my left. The radio news was full of quicky interviews and commentary with enthusiastic voices describing the spectacle of it all, language stumbling into the sublime and slipping into the religious. The kids were the most honest though, usually some version of “The coolest thing ever!” None of them reported seeing with precision the metaphorical darkness that Dillard saw. But to be fair, Dillard’s description showed up two years after.

I wished for more and wondered about wild horses.

But then Sunday, Pastor Karen read from a sermon of another ELCA pastor who watched the totality from southern Illinois and shared how this pastor (Pastor Katie Hines-Shah) wrote about it.  

It was like someone had flipped a switch. The whole world turned dark in an instant.  Dawn reversed, pinks and blues peeking out at the edges of the entire horizon. The sun, was suddenly gone, completely obscured by a totally circular, endlessly black sphere” and “I was surprised how frightening it was” and how “…we were so small in the midst of the universe. So vulnerable.  So much human nonsense wasn’t all that important in the greater scheme of things, All we could do was grab one another for a moment and hang on – to life, to love, to hope.”

Pastor Hine-Shah then laid out some of the parallels between the Easter story and her pilgrimage to see  totality and I looked up to see my own Pastor flanked on either side by an Easter-season abstract-art diptych meant to evoke the open tomb — a black circle outlined in white. It was the corona!

Pastor Hines-Shah had tapped the same “other-side-of-death” vein that Dillard did in interpreting her own reactions to the totality and even if I missed it, universality stuck. Two spiritually tuned women converging on that signal, decades apart and half a continent distant amid the noise, the consensus that something significant happened beyond the simple physics of the event that scientist predicted with crazy precision.

Dare I go there? Dare I wonder about the origins of my faith among the sun-worshiping religions of antiquity? The overlap in adjectives we use to describe both the sun and purity-personified God, by traditions sitting in some airy perfect heaven above the clouds? The Sun/Son play on words? Dillard describes the invisible moon – appearing not as something materially different than the sky but a piece of it. Sky rolling over and occluding the brilliant sun-hole in the wider sky. Stone rolling back and opening the son’s holy tomb in the stony mountain. I’ll bet anthropologists would have a field day here — and maybe they have (not my area).

I’m not sure if its more comforting or holy to imagine that your faith was dropped into the cold soil of humanity through some Godly fiat or, rather, an emergent property of ancestors groping with creation incompletely and incrementally towards the mystery their every intuition says is there but just beyond reach.

Is that a flashlight on the horizon?

Sources for Dillard’s Essay

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I think it’s great when you get all transcendent about “Nature”, like Dillard. (As if Nature were not naturally transcendent.) And if we don’t ask those same questions about the sky-god we believe in, were only kidding ourselves.

  • Harlan VanOort says:

    I’ve experienced the hilltops of the Yakima Valley and also a total eclipse. But I have not, as Annie Dillard, seen both at the same time.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Tim, as always, thank you. Dillard would admire your writing. Oh would she. I’ll never forget when she and her pal Lee Smith wee at Calvin’s festival of faith and writing, and we got a call from them, Lee saying, “Would you and Julie come get us out of here for an hour or so and then sit with us at dinner!” When Annie came out to read, she said, “I’ll read for 20 minutes then go have a smoke, then come back and read some more.”

  • Kathryn Vilela says:

    I’ll be turning these thoughts and phrases over in my heart for quite some time. Thanks for sharing them.
    I’ve been thinking these days about the “re-wilding” of faith, like how injured or poached animals are intentionally un-domesticated to return to life in the wild. I still like to explore wild faith with a flashlight, poetry, and good company, so I suppose I remain a bit domesticated at heart – but reading Dillard in the November woods with gloves on sounds like just the thing.

  • Betty says:

    This is so beautiful, Tim. It’s heart and soul stuff. Words fail me but my soul savors it.

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