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Notes from Totality, Blackrock Mountain, North Carolina

by Maria Dunlavey
Field Naturalist Cohort AH
8/23/2017

1. I’ve been a naturalist my whole life. I’ve loved mountains my whole life. I’ve never before spent two hours sitting on a mountaintop with a dozen odd strangers, just watching the world together.

2. It takes an hour and a half for a partial eclipse to turn into a total eclipse. Partiality gets boring after twenty minutes or so. The chatter picks up.

3. An hour or so in, the sun is maybe two thirds covered, and you start to think it might be perceptibly dimmer. Debate takes hold. Those of us with fishbelly white legs from a summer in field pants realize we can look down at them without squinting.

4. Totality is only fifteen minutes away. The light on the world is sharp, high-angle, and sunglass-tinted; everything looks slightly yellower. The birds — never cacaphonous, this high up and this late in summer — have melted away. It’s nothing like a sunset.

5. You perch your eclipse glasses on your forehead, and slide them down to watch the sliver dwindle in the sky above you; most of the time, you’re busy looking at the world, and it’s getting darker. It’s really getting darker. In your peripheral vision, unguarded, the sun is like a brilliant, dying star.

6. OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD, someone says.

7. Those nine words dissolve the critical bonds of adulthood. Suddenly, you’re on your feet. (Being on the edge of a cliff doesn’t seem to matter.) Just as suddenly, it’s dark, it’s legitimate night, except for the band of sunlit cumuli on every horizon. Your heart is pounding. Take off your glasses! someone shouts. You look up — an act of daring, you’ve already accidentally burned your retinas at least once — and there it is, the corona, a sigil emblazoned in white and black and blue. You think to take a picture; realize your uneducated efforts are useless; go back to wheeling around, taking in as much as you can. The world is ending. You know otherwise, but your body doesn’t. You realize you’re laughing, or maybe shouting. The rest of the mountaintop is too. It might sound from a distance like the unearthly euphoria of coyotes. Together, you howl at the moon.

8. You sneak a final bare-eyed glance at the corona as the sun’s first ray escapes eclipse. It is Venus’s twin.

9. The mountain’s resident hummingbird returns sedately to his work. Your heart won’t slow down. Everyone has been telling you animals go crazy during an eclipse; you couldn’t speak to that. You’re pretty sure people do.

10. No one talks about it. The next day at work, there’s no eclipse gossip, no how about that game? It’s just a shared secret, secure in its enormity, and a fond, unspoken agreement to treat the familiar world as if it’s real.

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