The sun has been missing from this part of Northern England for many weeks now. On the 21st August it also went missing from the skies of America, but only for a few minutes when the moon got in the way. During this total solar eclipse the sun was completely covered over for 2 minutes and 40 seconds, if you were standing in the right place. This seems a short time to do without the sun in comparison with its longer absence in my small part of the world. People, though, travel long distances to experience this very brief blotting out, just as those living through its longer absence in the summer months often travel to places where the sun fills the skies with its powerful presence, without any bothersome clouds. Two kinds of contemporary sun worship, perhaps?
There is not usually much media talk devoted to the absence of the summer sun in Northern places. It is not considered to be ‘news’. Total solar eclipses are a different matter.
During all the talk of the eclipse on BBC radio 4, I was struck by the number of scientists who said that the minutes of ‘totality’ were a very special experience – an experience they could not put into words. One even agreed that it was ‘mystical’, which surprised me. So what do writers – whose business is words – have to tell me about this sudden vanishing of the sun that I have not yet been fortunate enough to see myself? Two accounts of total eclipses have been brought to my attention in the run up to the eclipse; Annie Dillard’s description of the total eclipse over America in 1979, and Virginia Woolf’s diary notes on the one over the UK in 1927.
These are different types of account. Dillard’s is written a couple of years after the February event and is a long, carefully crafted piece of work. Woolf’s is a diary entry a day after her night journey up to Richmond, Yorkshire to see an eclipse in June, where the total covering of the sun was only 24 seconds. Her account is much shorter and presumably just one draft. As she says at the start of the entry, her attention is to ‘sketch out’ the experience, while Dillard’s essay has more complex aims that include critique of the culture she was living in. The winter morning sky was clear for Dillard, but Woolf’s early Northern British summer one was full of predictable cloud.
Despite these differences both these writers drew on similar images to try to convey the impact this event had on them. Both included their journey to the place as part of the experience, and remarked on how standing on hilltops in the early morning, staring at the sun, made them feel connected to our early ancestors:
Woolf – ‘I thought how we were like very old people, in the birth of the world – druids on Stonehenge;’
Dillard –‘It looked as though we were scattered on hilltops at dawn to sacrifice virgins, make rain, set stone stelae in a ring.’
Both writers equated the sudden darkness with death :
Woolf- ‘We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead.‘
Dillard – ‘There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the Earth rolled down.’
There was a shared sense of disquiet:
Woolf – ‘We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead.‘
Dillard – ‘We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there.’
Take the sun away from our planet and you take away the life of most of earth’s creatures. This is stating the obvious but it takes events like total eclipses, volcanic eruptions and long, sunless summers to remind us of our dependence on this burning star – something that our ancestors were all too aware of. Electricity and modern technologies serve to dim our sense of this vital relationship, while at the same time they bring us more knowledge about the sun and the galaxies we are just one tiny part of. We now know that our ancient fears, brought so vividly to the surface during total eclipses, will eventually be realised. The sun is dying and we are moving away from it.
The actual death of the sun is too far in the future for our minds to encompass, thankfully. But I, for one, struggle to comprehend that this beautiful planet is as finite as each of our individual lives.
One theme of Dillard’s essay is the inability of everyday language to capture the immensity of experiences such as total eclipses, or, indeed, of our life on this earth:
All those things for which we have no words are lost. The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel. With these we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work.
She echoes what eclipse watchers were saying on the radio – that they could not describe how they felt. That is why she set to work to give a full account of her experience and what she had observed of human behaviour, as well as the motion of these masses of gases and matter that make up our world. We need writers such as Dillard and Woolf, and other artists, to give us words for our fears and our awe.
Sometimes though, when the clouds part briefly to reveal the sun in all its summer glory, and I rush out to worship it, and top up my levels of vitamin D, what goes through my mind is a much simpler account of how the sun nurtures our well- being. It is a song, written by a fellow Northerner, and the music (absent here, but oh so much part of the message) summons up for me the warmth of sunshine on my skin:
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right
George Harrison, Abbey Rd, 1969.