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Dispatches from the present


Eclipse in Carbondale


We drive for six hours down into Carbondale, Illinois. At the Rosemont exit crossovers merge onto the cloverleaf interchange, the cars appearing to roll backwards like in the tracking shots used in Acura commercials. Later I see dogs in driver’s seats, bluestem grass in the median and deer asleep at night, near the rumble strip. The light posts, taller and brighter than many buildings in New York, shine onto sound walls inlaid with mock-stone reliefs.

Two Prisoner of War flags visible from the bay windows of the Radisson, and the kratom shop green leaf still aglow, so late in the evening. Two electronic billboards display gifs of gold bars and crosses made of fire, in an Ed Ruscha skyscape, full of the proud banners of American companies. The signs call out their brand names: “IHOP,” “Buffalo Wild Wings,” “Don Sol Mexican Grill.” The sound of my own breath takes me by surprise at the Krispy Kreme, in Marion.

Wide parking lots vacant morning, noon and night and drive-thru coffee concepts with cheerful service. “They make the plastic products and I make the molding for the plastic products,” Christian overhears in a forest, near an old heron. At rest by the lake in Crab Orchard, she eventually takes off, dragging her feet through the sunlight. We walk the boundary line of a campsite into patches of wild onions. Controlled burns produce heaps of charred acorns, burnt lichen and blackened rocks at the bottom of steep ravines.

In Carbondale proper there’s a four-day festival put on by NASA and Southern Illinois University. We wander from a NASA presentation to a folk concert to a protest march or dirge or celebration. A retired scientist corrects me in the SIU auditorium—“I didn’t work for NASA. I worked at NASA”—and then wishes me clear skies for tomorrow. His wife distributes photo lenses made of black polymer. Crowds pour into the city concert hall, where a four-piece band sings about Jews and hippies to Deadheads just in from the past. The AV guys project green anemones onto the ceiling along with red worms and white circles. Merchandise from the last eclipse fills the backstock racks of the mini-marts.

The 2017 t-shirt depicts a black sun passing over the pyramids along with the slogan “Darkness over Little Egypt,” the nickname for this region of southern Illinois. This whole town is some kind of Dazed and Confused of the present, the film refracted through multiple time machines. A drunk man has ridden his motorbike to the top of the left bank of the railroad overpass.

The local anarchist commune has two copies of the Tao Te Ching and a communal drawing board covered in anthropomorphic dogs. A group of young adults say the Lord’s Prayer in the shared kitchen, some of them wearing girdles, and others pink Stetsons. The radicals had started the day with presentations on water basin struggles outside Bordeaux. The rest of their eclipse programming includes scream therapy and a collective grieving ceremony. We join their manifestation as they “scoop” Main Street the night before totality, chanting, “We are the next eclipse.” The WSIL TV bulletin reads: “Our team is trying to learn more about the cause of the march.”

The day and hour we make Wal-Mart capreses and drive to Shawnee National Forest to watch the moon from McGee Hill. The picnic grounds look over fields beset by combines and umbraphiles, or shadow pilgrims, who sit in the shade of portable canopies, in pickup trucks, under the sprinklers of center pivot irrigation systems.

The light slips away for an hour, it grows quieter, and the temperature descends by ten degrees. Through the lenses the moon’s edge runs tangential to the limb of the sun; and, at second contact, when the sun is nearly covered, light from the photosphere shines over the moon’s rugged topography. Grazing occultations of stars had revealed which peaks would produce which diamonds of light, minor perturbations, white triangles, silhouetted keys.

When at last totality comes it comes not, like people say, as evening, but a half-dimming, desaturation and descent into wan light: the preparatory moments in a theater.

The umbra covers the Cache River, and the small patches of prairie growing alongside the freight lines and pioneer cemeteries. Here beside nameless gravestones grow patches of wildflower: field madder, spring avens, speedwell, pennycress and jagged chickweed, the buds no larger than freckles, but shaped like human hands. It covers thousands of prefabricated toolsheds in parking lots by banks. They resemble villages built for ponies, or rows of plastic tombs.

By us a cough, a bark, cries from a child. A puppy has taken shelter under a metal tray. The light grows softer and softer and the birds are all silent on the escarpment and the campsites in LaRue Pine Hills. The chickadees silent, the chimney swifts silent, the two woodpeckers, once active, now resting their beaks in the grooves of a beech.

Farmers allow for the break in time, surveil corn futures and mourn the price of meat. Some young landowners have fled the area to plant soy in the Amazon, while others manage their savanna remotely. Their customers are in China, their brokers at the Chicago Board of Trade. Satellites offer simulcast views of soil swaths here in Jackson County alongside the Cerrado and the Wajapi resguardos, far outside the path of totality.

“Will this end?” a child asks, hoping the answer is no. The spiders unfurl their webs.

Suddenly the shadow races through fields of alfalfa, transforming the earth into diorama, enclosed by sunset on all sides. In this spectral cast the green buds of the trees seem highlighted for our consideration.

The oak river birch and sycamore. The glades, trampled from high visitation; the acid seeps, through the Cretaceous Hills. The pignut and poplar, the small regenerative fires. The flies and minnows. The horses and chickens in lots.

Everything has stopped being now and exists just to be seen. Life frozen in hard clarity under the vault, the sun a black circle, set in a ring. Crickets confuse day for night but otherwise all can see clearly: this is what we have. This is what we stand to lose.

Photo credit: Southern Illinois University Carbondale