essays

The Trembling Island

I’ve taken too long to write about Iceland.

I visited there in the winter of 2018, when I was fortunate enough to view such things as the Sun rising at eleven, its low golden light kissing the honeycomb walls of the performing arts center called Harpa, and most of all the ghostly wraiths of the aurora borealis hanging from a thousand-star night, the green-white curtain dripping over the blisteringly cold, snowy plain where I stood in nearly as much awe as when I viewed my first eclipse. I also visited last month and once again put off any immediate documentation. But today I’ve decided it is past time to write, to process, at least concerning the more recent trip, which brought me many personal challenges but also helped to focus, slow, and realign my mind’s panicked, panting race through grief and fear for this planet. Iceland trembles, not only from earthquakes but from ripples of the past and future— a fragile, shaking thing, like a wildflower caught in a cold wind— and the trembling brings truth.

. . . .

For all the places I’d like to see before I die, many are very far away from me— thus a prohibitive prospect, particularly when I think about how much a single plane flight contributes to the greenhouse effect, or how much I hate flying in general, or how I could take a train or ship but would need to use much more precious vacation hours. It’s always the getting-there that makes me balk. Once I’ve arrived, I do well enough, although I’ve squarely resolved that this will have been my last time touring a place without knowing the primary language. Not that everyone owes it to each other, but that I don’t wish to impose English on too many people. In any case, I’ve been visiting Iceland lately thanks to my mother, by which I mean that she’s paid much of my and my husband’s way, but more correctly: she’s emigrated there in her retirement, and for various reasons it’s easier for those of us still in the US to visit her than for her to come back and visit us.

I’m going to include my mother in this narrative as little as possible for the sake of her privacy, but I wanted to mention both her and the fact that she has her own personal reasons for choosing to live on a sparsely populated volcanic island just south of the Arctic Circle; otherwise, I worry it would be too easy to confuse my time there with the country’s tourism boom. I’ve gathered that boom has plenty of advantages and disadvantages, but any tourism campaign must, in turn, sell a kind of dream to the traveler. While I haven’t yet figured out what is the dream version of Iceland, I’ve begun to sense certain things. With all of its hiking, camping, and hot spring bathing, I think some people go there for a dream of fitness, beauty, and going back to nature, the kind of Romantic wilderness myth that’s fueled nudist camps in continental Europe, a myth where the specifics of the idolized body share some connection with the political imagery of the 1936 Olympics.

And after all, doesn’t Iceland’s distinctive history offer an enticing fantasy for white minds? This is an island that was Euro-colonized without having any indigenous peoples to displace or massacre. Its timeline of local events can be traced only by raw geological analysis and the written traditions of its settlers’ direct descendants. If you’re merely neoliberal, here is a place whose “untamed wastelands” you may explore without an ounce of guilt. If you’re a reactionary or worse, here is your white paradise, cold and hard but surely what you imagine your ancestors would handle with aplomb.

It’s more complicated than that. It’s always more complicated. Indeed, Iceland had no indigenous population before Viking settlement, but it was settled as part of the same messy process that brought longboats to a further western continent, the establishment of ill-fated Vinland, the name Vinland itself now often a white nationalist signaling tool. Indeed, medieval Norse settlement projects were not purely violent in nature, and Iceland’s Alþingi rightly deserves recognition for its relatively democratic scope of government being established at a time when many other parts of the Nordic world were hardly so progressive; but amidst all this lies the preponderance of evidence that most of the women who originally joined the Norsemen on this island were Celtic thralls. No one can know how many of those women would rather not have been there, yet presumably the number was high. And beyond all this, isn’t the very notion of an “acceptable” colonization a kind of exception that proves the rule? Don’t think about Iceland’s exceptional qualities very hard, or other things may simply sting more.

I say all of this now as if I don’t enjoy the place. Actually I do, with almost painful fervor. The above is simply my caveat: the reasons I suggest would not be wise for embracing an Icelandic dream. If I were an Icelander myself, I would probably have plenty of other reasons. Visit carefully and with much thought. What follows are the thoughts I had on my last trip, and the events that caused them.

. . . .

Monday. Like so many eastbound flights, we had a redeye scheduled, my husband and I. Since moving out of the city, it was more complicated for us to reach the airport, but we managed it with time to spare, which I always prefer because on the one hand, it’s best to get through TSA bullshit as fast as possible, but on the other hand, trying to rush through that because of an impending gate closure has to be one of the worst nightmares devised by humanity. I hate flying. How very, very much do I hate flying.

The TSA agents acted friendly this time, as if letting you in on the fact that their presence is an eternal, theatrical joke, now laugh while you surrender all your most vital possessions and walk shoeless through the scanner. We ate an overpriced airport dinner. The flight itself— well, I’ll never endorse any particular airline here, but let me say it was an Icelandic carrier that hadn’t just abruptly gone out of business a couple months prior. We boarded smoothly, left promptly, and still I teared up like a child and clutched my husband’s hand during takeoff. Truly one of the more useless facets of my anxiety: to know that most plane disasters happen at this earliest stage of the flight, and fatalities are also higher compared to a crash landing. But then that was done, and they had a deal on Icelandic gin tastings on board, so we got high-altitude tipsy on a couple miniature bottles and this, miraculously, allowed us to properly sleep on a plane for the first time in ages, albeit only for a few hours.

We woke over pink, wispy clouds, deep blue ocean, the foam of the waves crashing on the igneous shore, the great lava fields around Keflavík. The lava was like frozen ash spread over a paper that was crumpled up and then spread out again, and in the shallow sunlight it burned orange and brown.

. . . .

Tuesday. It took some time to feel like Tuesday and not Monday: Extended Edition. But after managing to rendezvous with my mother in Keflavík airport, pick up a rental car, return to the Reykjavík apartment, and sleep a touch more, we could fathom venturing out into the world for a while. The first errand was mundane, taking us to the shopping mall known as Kringlan, which among some other things gave us a bite to eat at Hamborgarafabrikkan, “the Hamburger Factory.” I’ve only been to this one location, but it seems to be popular, although going there always highlights how the cost of food is considerable in Iceland. The exchange rate favors the US dollar, but a single burger could still work out to more than $20, and it doesn’t appear to be considered gourmet dining any more than Stateside. I called this mundane, but it will tie in to the rest of this story with a certain logic.

We hadn’t deliberately planned what to do after this late lunch, but by the time we were done eating, we had decided to see a tourist attraction that my mother hadn’t showed us last time: Perlan, the exhibition building crowning the top of Öskjuhlíð, one of Reykjavík’s highest hills. It houses many displays and interactive experiences pertaining to the landscapes and ecosystems of the island, and my inner scientist was instantly thrilled. A dark room with specially shaped and placed video screens helped to not only teach about Iceland’s volcanic activity but also to simulate being in a magma-filled cave. From fire to ice cave, too— the museum also contained a frigidly well-built replica of a glacier, the blue-white ice surrounding visitors on all sides, leaving me shivering by the end. Attached to the glacier imitation was also an extensive exhibit about where glaciers were located in Iceland, what shapes they could take, their effects on the landscape, but most of all the fate of glaciers amid the climate crisis, and this gave me some pause, as did many other exhibits about Icelandic wildlife. At Perlan, they were not hiding the truth or even trying to misdirect with false hopes; the curatorial choices confronted us at every turn with simple facts, neither bleak nor cruel but always clear. Iceland may become more habitable than some places in centuries to come, but if and when its glaciers disappear, vital geologic records will be lost, the land’s volcanism may be less suppressed, some life may need to adapt. And the changes on the island today are a potent reminder of the destruction of an ice-covered Arctic as we know it.

The entertainment of a museum thus proved sobering, and by the time we went up to Perlan’s observation deck for a panoramic view of the capital, I was distracted by ruminations. On all sides, Reykjavík and the sea were lovely, bathing in pale gold from the Sun that had started to lower. But the wind was cold, particularly for what I would expect of May. As warm as Iceland tends to stay for its latitude, I have been almost nowhere with wind so constant and so sharp. The world around me now was beautiful, broad, and pummeled by uncertainties.

I was able to put off many of my darker thoughts over dinner. I tried plokkfiskur, the traditional baked fish, potato, and cheese dish, finding the cheese flavor unusual but not unpleasant; my husband ate reindeer, which I’d eaten before but stole a bite regardless; we all drank fancy lemonades. Sensory inundation pulls my mind out of itself. I slept passably that night, though I also noticed that even after sunset, midnight was twilit. I’d seen nothing close to this before except Edinburgh in August, or St. Petersburg in June, and neither quite compared.

. . . .

Wednesday. Unlike our first visit, we were not going to stay confined to the island’s southwestern points this week. A full tour of the Ring Road would also have to wait, but my mother was going to show us some of the northwest, and I looked forward to not only seeing more of Iceland in daylight but also to see something rural. For all Reykjavík’s sturdy, unique, colorful architecture and bustling nightlife, it may contain a plurality of the country’s residents but it cannot possibly capture the landscape. Our destination for the day: Blönduós, a village tucked snugly into one of the island’s northern fjords.

By a straight route on the Ring Road, the driving estimate was about three hours, but we allowed a little extra for breaks, and we also had planned a detour to Þingvellir, so by the time we reached the village it would be getting decidedly close to dinner. However, picturesque though Blönduós was promised to be, we held just as much interest in the journey proper; a short overnight stint wouldn’t seem a waste. And indeed, what a drive it was.

As my husband and I usually tend to do, he handled the actual vehicle operation and I handled the navigation; but once we broke out of the one actual city, urban driving intricacies swiftly vanished and I had the luxury of mostly relaxing and taking in the scenery, talking sometimes with my mother in the backseat if she wasn’t napping. Our Þingvellir detour instantly fascinated me because when we saw the aurora on our last trip the Northern Lights tour bus supposedly brought us out to this area but we had seen it covered in snow on a moonless night. Now the sky was blue and the land was bare, and after a little while, we stopped at the gorge called Almannagjá, part of the fault line where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are split further every year. We didn’t get to experience an earthquake, but like other tourists that day we ventured a little way into the gorge, marveling not so much at the size— it isn’t the Grand Canyon— but at its raw beauty and the stunning sense of one’s own person being such a small cog in the Earth’s functioning. There were even smaller cogs, too: lovely little clusters of saxifrage growing right on the rocks, merrily photosynthesizing without a care for the geological significance of their home.

After taking our photos and departing, we reconnected with the Ring Road, which got onto a winding course along the western coastline, on the right passing by the mighty slopes of Mt. Esja— one of so many other dormant volcanoes but surely among the most impressive— and on the left showing off the basalt and pumice formations that were splashed by sea waves. For a while, any grass or other flora around us was surprisingly green and lush. But the further north we went, the more that this greenery grew patchier, paler, becoming the kind of blanched yellow that typifies so many popular images of Iceland.

We also did not make the entire trip above ground, either. Plummeting down, down into the almost harrowingly dark Hvalfjörður Tunnel, where everything was shadow-shrouded and some form of mist or dust scattered the rays of small red and gold industrial lights, we crossed to the next peninsula, and all the while I felt like I was being flown through the gutworks of some giant, sunken submarine. Nearly ten minutes of this passed before we emerged back into the blinding sunlit realm, and then we went on to the town of Borgarnes where the Ring Road turns further inland. By that point, we had already stopped twice for a leg stretch and a convenience store, but this next, longer portion proved a straight shot.

How empty it was. I would not use words like bleak or harsh. Not that sort of emptiness. Assuredly, I wouldn’t have wanted to be lost out in that wilderness in the thick of a winter storm, least of all if I had insufficient clothing, shelter, or food. That would not be a kind time. But aside from that basic consideration, I felt a serenity in this essentially volatile environment. I was looking at a young Earth, one of the youngest pieces of Earth, open and still finding itself despite how many human generations had been born and died on this landmass. The yellow-grass hills with their endless tussocks and tiny birds. The mountain peaks that still had snow. The thin streams and waterfalls trickling from far-off glaciers. So new, so empty. Waiting.

I ached at the houses set among these landmarks. They were large or tiny, historic or modern, and they seemed to have nothing around them for leagues, nothing except the view, a little dirt road leading to their door, and often a large paddock of sheep or horses. Horses most of all. On the last trip, we’d been warned about all the free-roaming sheep and I’d thus developed the impression that most Icelandic farm animals were sheep, but the horses vastly overnumbered them. I say horses because they’re the size of ponies but the convention is to say horses and so that’s what they are. I fell in love with these creatures from the instant I saw them at even a far distance; while not an avid or even practiced equestrian, I love horses for their beauty, their temperaments, their rich history as companions of humanity. But I did not simply ache for a little house with several dozen horses to care for. I ached for the scale of it all. I imagined waking up every day and being surrounded by the sublime, an endless rolling tundra out one window and an enormous mountain out the other.

Gradually, as the wind rattling the car grew stronger and stronger, we started to round the fjords. Here was the ocean again, and we saw new things: seals on a beach, huge unfamiliar goose-like birds, less isolated homes, more proper villages. My ears popped slightly as we descended from highlands to nearly sea level. One fjord, another, then another, and suddenly here we were, nothing ahead of us but Blönduós itself. GPS took us on a slightly roundabout route to reach the actual hotel, but I felt a small glee at how close it was to the water: perhaps fifty yards or so from the short, lava-littered edge of what felt like the whole world. The building was not glamorous on the outside, and could not be, under such circumstances. A grey, corrugated metal affair meant to withstand gales and, I suppose, storm surges.

Inside, it was very calm and quiet. You could easily call it a bed & breakfast, not a hotel. Each bedroom was unique, while half the building consisted of a gorgeous, high-ceilinged kitchen and common area. All the décor was a master class in how to successfully glorify utilitarian Scandinavian-style design, using IKEA furniture to beat the corporation’s own catalogues. I felt spoiled; this may not actually have cost much, I’m not sure, but even though we had to share the two communal bathrooms with the other guests, that would be a small price to pay for staying somewhere with a gigantic bay window overlooking the sea.

This place did not serve dinner, so it took us some time to sort out a warm meal, and by then it may have been past eight in the evening. But of course, the Sun still hung rather high in the sky, only just beginning to meander down toward the northwest horizon. We ate at another nearby guest house that had an evening menu, and I might have had some of the most delicious salmon of my entire life. This spot had a TV; we caught most of the upset victory of Tottenham Hotspur over AFC Ajax in the UEFA Championship semifinal; I think we were the only ones cheering for Tottenham, although it didn’t really matter.

Sunset was expected after ten that night. Expected, as if it might not happen. It would, but the golden hour was so prolonged that you could nearly have told me we were at an even higher latitude. In fact, as the three of us assembled in the common area of our hotel to watch the Sun sink into a thick bank of clouds over the sea, I finally realized that on this side of the island, I was not looking at the Atlantic Ocean, but the Arctic— for the very first time. If I set sail from here on a clear course, I would reach the land of the Kalaallit, or beyond.

The Arctic sea ice is melting, of course, and we may well lose it. I fell into more reflections. Extinct polar bears, a watery North Pole clogged with microplastics. I pictured myself as an observer some thousands of years from now, standing in the ruins of this building, or further back, whatever the sea level would allow. Then I considered that the physical structure of this coastal point would be only a little changed, shaped by erosion yet still here. There was a permanence to here. For a very, very long time, anyone could stand here and watch a nearly identical sunset over the same patch of water. Iceland is new enough to think about all the time this planet has to age. One day here would be devoid of even the yellow grass, perhaps, unable to support more than bare volcanic rock again, with no sea birds in the air; even then, the Sun would appear as I saw it now. One day the Earth’s precession, plate tectonics, and other factors would change the view; even then, a similar sight could be found at a close angle. One day the Sun would be huge and red and swallow here, a last joke, eating the last wolf if there were any wolves left to see. If there were any humans left to remember the old legends.

I thought of standing somewhere utterly boiled and blasted, the remains of an Iceland so far gone that it had become an unremembered fiction, with even the volcanoes cold and the continents stopped in their courses. I thought of a dying planet whose lifeforms had cancelled themselves out with their own cleverness. An alien traveler passes by for a recording opportunity, to learn what they can before flying away to watch the Earth’s very last encounter with the Sun from the stillness of deep space. Their recording is nothing, only a hot wind blowing poisonous air over piles of minerals so dead they lack even the smallest hint of bacteria.

But the hot wind might sound like the ghost of the sea.

It occurred to me in that mesmerizing dusk that whatever was to come, however the look of the Sun would change or not change, time moves in a straight line, or so physicists are forced to agree. So although we are pushed ever forward to the entropic future, the past cannot be denied. Things that have occurred will always have been things that occurred; they are not merely figments of our collective memory, in that they are, but for some time, they were real. They were here. In the aeons to come I would not be watching the pink and saffron blaze over the Arctic waves. In the past, I will have done this. I will have existed. The Earth will have existed. And if it is not enough to say as much, it should still be said.

Once twilight was gathering, I took a long, peaceful shower that naturally smelled of sulfur; I slept well.

. . . .

Thursday. The breakfast spread was delicious, and we had a better chance to meet and learn about the few other people who were staying at the hotel. Four friends, perhaps my age, maybe a little younger, who were from various parts of Europe and South America and essentially backpacking around Iceland together. I’ve never gotten to do something like that before in my few travels, not as a general social endeavor. I was envious, though not paralyzingly so. They seemed like good hearts, and between last night’s revelations and the morning’s food and conversation, I felt ready to face the rest of this trip with less depression.

Ironically, of course, I teared up and silently cried when we drove away from Blönduós, and then this itself was a silly cliché; what had I just turned on from my music library but a Sigur Rós album? But even knowing I was in some state beyond parody, I let the tears flow for several songs while I watched the scenery again, as our car climbed back into the highlands. For the record, I think there is a lot that can be fairly stereotyped about Sigur Rós— a deeper Icelandic idol for me is lady Björk— but I also won’t waste energy pretending I am too cool to enjoy the occasional jingly, soothing soundscape, whether you call it “post-rock” or not. At the time, anyway, I must have needed the catharsis.

By the time the album was halfway through, I had calmed, and although wireless signals were intermittent I entertained myself a little by learning online about some of the peaks we were passing. Some of them were these wonderful, highly pointed cinder cones, the most alien to my eyes, the most thoroughly broadcasting that beneath them had once dwelt great pools of magma. Whenever I go back, I think I must confront my deep-seated anxiety about volcanoes and visit some of the active sites where they let tourists go. I would also like to see the geysers and strange formations like the Dimmuborgir.

We took our lunch break in Borgarnes, stopping at one outlet of a restaurant chain that felt vaguely equivalent to the sit-down options that proliferate at rest areas and truck stops in the US. Large portions, a diner-esque menu, an atmosphere that tries to be cozy without forcing you to stay too long, knowing you’re only passing through, you’ll be gone soon. I expected the food to be good but not memorable, a liminal mass of ingredients that satisfied without rewarding. As it happened, this place had the edge: the food was really very good, or at least what I had, which was a huge platter of not too crunchy, not too moist fish & chips.

After this, Reykjavík wasn’t so far, but we had another stop planned en route. My husband and I had both looked forward to hiking in Iceland’s May, since January was a prohibitive joke; although we had originally been thinking of somewhere relatively flat, logistics had worked out such that we had a mountain climb ahead of us, namely Mt. Esja herself. Neither time nor our leg muscles would allow us to reach the summit, but we may have gone a quarter of the way, enough to turn around for a marvelous look at the vale to our south. My mother waited in the car while we climbed. For the first time on the trip, I was stunned to find myself wearing too many layers and even stripped down to just my shirt and leggings, despite the ever-present wind.

The slope was open and very green, with a few trees— it’s a myth that Iceland has no trees or can’t grow them. But the myth has real origins, given that the island was once full of boreal woodland that was cut down, and the arable land was destroyed by gradual topsoil erosion. As I hiked, I thought again on the empty wilderness I’d seen over the past two days, and on the prospect of eternity I’d considered at the seaside hotel. Some probably say Iceland presents a true sign of hope for the Anthropocene. Its populace has lived for hundreds of years through the direct effects of human-wrought deforestation and lost farmland; they have learned their lessons well, and in addition to the country’s contemporary focus on geothermal or other renewable energies, many forest nurseries can be seen growing today, usually stands of beautiful birches or little baby pines. There are also rigorous legislative protections for protecting the soil and wildlife from further damage. I certainly believe Iceland’s environmental history presents a useful teaching tool. I do not think the country has found a perfect solution, as among other problems it is still capitalist. But I looked around me on great Esja and counted myself lucky to see this place during the island’s decades of recovery, regardless of what setbacks are elsewhere in the world or of what the future may bring.

Our own future that day was humble, familial, and domestic; once my husband and I had come down from our stopping point on the mountain, it didn’t take us long to finish the drive back to my mother’s dwelling, and the two of us cooked for her. Macaroni & cheese, with three cheeses we could never have found at home.

. . . .

Friday. This was nearly a very bad day. I had summoned the funds to pay for my husband and I to go on a one-hour Icelandic horse tour just southeast of Reykjavík at one in the afternoon; and we arrived quite early. So early, in fact, that we should have taken the opportunity to pick up lunch on the way. The horse farm did offer lunch on the premises, but only to people who had booked it, so after confirming that we couldn’t be squeezed in, we backtracked a few miles to the center of this little suburb, bought some ready-made items from a supermarket, and ferried them back to the farm to eat in our rental car. Because I hate entitled customer behavior, I feel obligated to state that all of this was well and good, a simple mishap on our own part that we rectified without any fuss. What was not well and good was what I selected to eat in this process.

I ate a tuna sandwich, which was fine, and then I started in on some chips dipped in something labeled in English as avocado & jalapeño hummus. It was indeed hummus containing avocado and jalapeño, but the more that I ate of it, the less that the tingle in my mouth and throat felt like it had anything to do with capsaicin. By the time I’d eaten at least a couple tablespoons of it, I couldn’t bring myself to panic my husband or mother right away, but I was silently looking up a few listed words from the Icelandic-written ingredients on my phone. At last, of course, hnetusmjör: peanut butter. I have a terrible peanut allergy, nominally life-threatening even though I’ve yet to experience full anaphylaxis.

I don’t usually swear in front of my mother, but I let go a very loud fuck at this revelation, and what follows after that is slightly blurred in my memory; there were some antihistamines in her purse, non-drowsy in theory, so I think that I popped three while someone else ran into the horse farm’s office to let them know there was an emergency. I was put on a phone call with the local EMT dispatch, though I don’t know what I said to them, just that by the end it was clear an ambulance would be coming for me. This was a decidedly bad reaction— my throat didn’t just itch, it outright hurt, I felt like I couldn’t talk properly, and while it didn’t feel like any hives were breaking out under my clothes, I felt myself breaking into a cold sweat, and I was lightheaded. Instant misery, of course, because while I sensed I would pull through, I couldn’t fathom dealing with a foreign medical system if I had to go to the hospital, and most of all I couldn’t bear the thought of missing the horseback ride. After looking at so many beautiful horses for two days of driving, I was so in love, and there was almost no time remaining to reschedule.

The EMTs arrived in about ten minutes, by which point I had been escorted to the farm’s back offices and sat down in a chair with a tall glass of water. While the lead EMT mostly spoke Icelandic, his assistants could interpret, though this experience above all is why I don’t want to go back again without learning some of the language. One assistant in particular was a dashingly handsome fellow and I do remember ludicrously thinking to myself that now was not the time to develop some kind of EMT fetish. In any case, luckily the antihistamines were strong enough that they had started to kick in after my vitals were checked, and because the latter were all-clear and I was more cogent, I was given the choice of whether to go in the ambulance or not, and I said no.

I had indeed missed the time to join the tour we’d registered for, however, so even with physical improvement, I felt despondent until being told we could join another tour in an hour, which even happened to be a longer one. The farm would not even charge more. I’m still overwhelmed by thinking of how generous this was, especially considering how none of this was remotely the farm’s fault. The only tradeoff was that the original tour would have wound up just being for my husband and I, whereas the later, longer one was for about twenty people. But I didn’t mind; as the medicine took fuller effect and my throat went back to normal, I readied myself for the fact that I was going to make friends with a horse.

Which is precisely what I did, more or less. I hadn’t mounted an equine in more than a decade, and before that I had probably done brief pony rides perhaps twice; so I felt some trepidation about whether I would be able to hold the right stance and whether my assigned horse would like me. But although my stature made it slightly difficult to haul myself up onto even a horse as small as the Icelandic breed, I did manage it, and this specific horse seemed fairly keen to go on a ride with me and all of his horse friends— keen without being rambunctious. Gormur was his name: a middle-aged gelding, once a grey whose dappling had mostly turned white by now. He was shedding his summer coat and got it all over my leggings.

Also, he was hungry. As our tour set off in a queue from the paddock, I was pleased to discover that I could carry myself the right way for our slow walking gait— relaxed in the pelvis, feet pressed well in the stirrups, shoulders slightly hunched— and I quickly picked up how much pressure to apply to the bit for steering or halting, how much to squeeze with my legs if I needed him to pick up the pace. Nevertheless, every time that we stopped anywhere near a patch of grass or shrubbery, Gormur would insistently tread in that direction, dip his head, and start munching away. One of the tour guides informed me that many horses had ways of “testing” new riders to see what they could get away with, so I should gently but firmly tug on the reins to make him lift his head and give up. This was easier said than done, and the worst part was that although I soon realized I wouldn’t fall forward just because Gormur was leaning that way, I’d developed a fantastically full bladder, and something in this one eating movement would compress my abdomen in the worst place imaginable.

I got by, distracted at times but coming to like the challenge of cooperating with Gormur’s needs and nudging him to cooperate with mine. It helped that we weren’t simply pacing around the farm; we went on a trail ride out to a small ridge overlooking a vast lava field. Another encounter with Iceland’s mixed desolation and youth. I could write an entire essay just about the little moments I shared with this horse, and how joyful I felt to be traveling in such an ancient symbiosis. At one point the group split and my husband was inadvertently separated from me, a shame because he’s a more experienced rider and I could have used his input; but because this left me with my thoughts, I whiled away many quiet, reflective minutes wondering what hope might lie for humans and horses living together in the decades and centuries to come.

The ride ended just about when it ought. Gormur was growing impatient to return to the paddock, once he knew we were near it, and my bladder was screaming. As I somewhat clumsily dismounted, I also found that saddle stiffness was a very real thing, with some of my groin and leg muscles all but refusing to work for my first few steps back on solid ground. My true regret about needing to urinate so badly is that it prevented me from giving Gormur a proper goodbye, so if I ever get back to this one horse farm, I at least owe him a hello in turn. I was still able to thank one of the farm’s staff indoors for their courtesy and help.

But then I was reunited with my husband and my mother, and the afternoon was starting to fall behind us, and we drove away from this nearly sidelined but ultimately peaceful, primal experience. It happened that my mother needed to take a trip to Reykjavík’s IKEA, so dinnertime proved a distinct change in pace as I had my first encounter with the iconic chain’s cafeteria, Icelandic-style. Some of it was about the same as you find Stateside, but the gravy on the meatballs was different.

. . . .

Saturday. After staying up late— talking about movies and enjoying the seemingly endless twilight— we also woke up late, even though my husband and I had our flight home to catch. This was deliberate, given that the two of us would be landing at Logan around quarter to seven at night but our brains would still think it was closer to eleven, and then we’d still have a couple of hours to spend shuttling and driving back to our new home on Massachusetts’ northern border. All this notwithstanding, we did have time here in Iceland to make sure that our drive back out to Keflavík could be leisurely and scenic. Following breakfast, we packed up our things without rushing, and we said goodbye to my mother in the parking lot of her apartment building, the whipping wind being the only thing that pushed us finally into the rental car.

We drove back down the island’s southwest peninsula, the route familiar to us both from when my mother drove us up from the airport and from some of the other driving we had needed to do during the week. A little ways from the rental car return, we stopped at the much-publicized museum called Viking World, decidedly a tourist trap but not an intolerable one. I’m almost as fascinated by tourist traps in some metanarrative way as I am by genuinely appealing attractions.

The car we then returned with few hassles, though we had braced ourselves because of how many forms of weather, road hazard, and general disaster insurance one seems typically expected to buy for all the things that can go wrong when driving in Iceland; maybe somehow all that insurance still wasn’t enough for the dust we’d gotten all over the little black Renault. But since it was, all payments had been processed in advance, and the gas had been filled up, we were ferried over to the airport proper in a matter of minutes.

I only have so much else worth telling about the journey home. The main thing coming to mind is that while flying into Keflavík has generally gone smoothly, we’ve yet to have a smooth departure. On our first trip, I was randomly selected for an additional security screening complete with bag search at a secondary checkpoint; much as I dislike the TSA, this had never happened to me in the States, not simply because I’m a white-privileged citizen but also because I’ve never used an international airport there where such a checkpoint seemed to exist. That holdup had almost made us late for our flight home. In this case, we dodged a repeat delay but had to deal with an inexplicably inefficient boarding process where we were forced to check one of our carry-on items even though it had always been accepted for carry-on in the past and people with larger luggage weren’t asked to do the same thing. I have no particular conclusions to draw from this run of bad luck, except naturally that I hope the third time is the charm.

Once on board, my husband and I didn’t have the luxury of sitting together, which I say with some facetiousness because the people who wound up seated next to each of us were such that we didn’t particularly need to have been split up— another mysterious, inscrutable chapter of air travel theatre. I kept it together for takeoff, then spent most of the flight snacking, trying to avoid catching glimpses of the three people around me watching A Star Is Born on their seat screens, ultimately watching Blade Runner 2049 myself, having grotesquely mixed feelings, and so on. Suddenly the plane was safely back on the Logan tarmac and I was looking out at an all too familiar skyline, which made Iceland feel like a dream. I started this writing with the note that Iceland is a dream to so many people, and just now I’m confronted by my own dream, which is to say that what I saw and felt there was simultaneously ordinary and transcendent, but either way it’s fallen beyond my senses, all impressions filtered through my imperfect mind. When I woke up the next morning in my own bed and shuffled into the bathroom to perform my ablutions, I looked at myself in the mirror and couldn’t believe where I had been just the day before.

. . . .

Where do I leave these thoughts? What is a proper ending? I’ve come to accept that I love recording my travels, even feel compelled to do so, but I’m also still learning the real point of it. What I’ve put here is one part grandiose musings, one part mundane recitation, and I only ever remember about half the things that I could bother to say. But like more and more people I know who write, I’ve taken to calling many essays “dispatches from late capitalism,” and in this instance I might say it counts although a “dispatch from the climate crisis” would work just as well, or better. This has been my documentation of a very particular place in a very particular time, of what wisdom was imparted to me by the end. I hope this wisdom will stay with me, and that it will keep me humming, vibrating, trembling just like the island itself, vital rather than defeated, sworn to the service of a world where one day new, fresh flowers can emerge in a springtime untainted by plastic, smoke, and acid. Where the petals shake in a good, cool wind.

Llywelyn Jones

Living, afraid

I have spent a month or more being too afraid.

I’ve always been someone who fears things deeply, but that’s often when I have reason to fear; my fears go to the extreme, the worst case, envisioning how terribly it all will end, but they are not sparked at random. There are clinical terms for the things I don’t experience— social anxiety, well, I’m usually not afraid of interacting with people— generalized anxiety, well, I don’t think of myself as someone who curls up in a ball at just anything. I merely, “merely” struggle to keep calm under pressure. That’s all it’s been, until recently.

Something has changed in a strange way, so strange that it could almost be considered an annoyance. It wasn’t the knowledge that the entire global biosphere has just over a decade to be saved from potentially total collapse. That knowledge is painful, deep, abiding, and made the sadness of autumn and winter all the sharper, fashioning it into a real grief. But if anything, that all made me less afraid for a time. Why should I be afraid of obstacles in my daily life that are so petty next to apocalypse? Nevertheless, at the onset of spring I began to deal with something profoundly new to me: the cat I’ve had for almost eleven years was ill, and although he’s recovering now, there was a stretch when I thought I might lose him.

I prepared for it. I made sure to tell him all the things I wanted him to know, if he could ever understand, and I researched and decided what I would do with his remains if the moment came, and I even had a plan for contacting an at-home euthanasia service if his suffering was too great. While he may be on the mend, I’m coming off the end of many sleepless nights, and my tension from those has spread into other sources of stress. Now I keep winding myself up into a silent, heart-pounding frenzy, not at my cat, but at my normally dormant phobias. I am afraid of fire. I am afraid of illness in general. I am afraid of loud noises. Incidents involving any of these things, or the threat of these things, are making my blood burn. Flooded with cortisol.

It’s bad for me, and I want it to stop. I am exploring what I can do to make it stop, and I have already made certain resolutions. Right now, though, while I’ve had a few minutes to reflect again about all of this, I’ve decided to write here, because I haven’t written so fully on anything in my life for a while. I think that’s something I’ve lacked, something that could have even contributed to my fear. I’m going to try being brave now. I still remember what that felt like, and if it takes writing and writing and writing until I can get that feeling back, then write I must.

Here ends another dispatch from late capitalism.

Llywelyn Jones

This Latest Eclipse: A Record, Part 8

Last part of an eight-part series. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7

The road. We were back upon it one last time, and we were passing through increasingly familiar territory, with home before us rather than behind us. Of course the road has its own mythos; even cultures that have forgotten nomadic life remain obsessed with journey narratives, transit narratives, the entering and exiting of places that serve only as middle points to the destination. A special part of that mythos, in this country but perhaps also in others, is the experience of liminal uncertainty on the highway system and in the spaces one encounters while traveling it.

I journeyed with my mind focused on such experiences for those remaining hours, perhaps because the less liminal points of interest on the trip had already been visited. The eclipse remained as vivid in my memory as it had ever been and as I suspect it may always be, but with three days past, I had to expend effort to open that psychic door— rather than feeling it constantly blow open. And Philadelphia and Greenville and Asheville and Gettysburg had been what they had been, but I was no longer with them. So on that Thursday afternoon I began the drive by watching the landscape of rural Pennsylvania.

On that stretch, the most iconic thing that my husband and I both noticed were the hex signs. These halfway abstract images were painted on many a barn. They are not Amish, or at least the Amish reject claims of such association, though they most likely have some pedigree from the Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch as a whole. To scholarly knowledge hex signs also have nothing to do with hexes, witches, or Germanic pagan practices, and the etymology of hex in this case is muddy. But due to the symbols’ ambiguous lineage, naturally people in this region have appropriated hex signs for any purpose from connoting local pride to building a syncretic visual language for spellcasting. Besides this interesting history, I also simply enjoyed the artwork.

Eventually we found a diner for late lunch, not far past the New Jersey border in New York. I didn’t terribly enjoy the food, but a diner seemed another requirement of the road mythos, and we hadn’t been to one yet. The middling meal almost seemed like a requirement, too. All of this opened a gateway to certain other elements once we reached Connecticut: a painful traffic jam at sunset, a few wrong turns taken in an attempt to avoid the jam. Our tempers had strained slightly by nightfall, and our stomachs were growling furiously once we slipped back onto I-90.

We ate a very humble dinner at a rest area. Then the last darkness loomed. Here we were, night thick over the highway, our headlights illuminating the dashed lines of the lane markers, which pulsed past us again and again and again. It was a night that the shadow of the moon alone could not have provided. Real night. Sleep-night. The lengthening night of an aged summer. Those lane markers carried us under green signs and eventually under the artificial glow of the small but glittering city of Boston. We made our dive into the Big Dig, we took the turn off the highway, we coasted along and up and suddenly stopped in our parking lot.

It felt just like driving home from a single day out. I should have been more tired, surely. But when I finally slept in my own bed, I slept deep and long, and I knew that I had seen something three days before that nobody in this city here had seen. I had been gone, and I had come back with an eclipse of my very own. And, unfortunately, a travelogue.

D. Llywelyn Jones

Here concludes this essay series. I may return to sparse posting for the foreseeable future, but this is not easy to predict.

This Latest Eclipse: A Record, Part 7

Seventh part of an eight-part series. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 8

By daylight I found myself out of place in Gettysburg almost instantly. Our hotel served a free but limp breakfast in a fluorescent-lit room with a depressingly industrial tile floor. The other guests wore things like flag pins, khaki Bermuda shorts, and shirts in bright but poorly coordinated colors; none of them seemed younger than forty. Hotel management also held the mindset that the first thing you want to do in the morning is watch TV while you eat— watch any channel, that is— and so Today blared from an unnecessarily large screen on the wall.

Our ultimate purpose here was to see the Civil War battlefield. It had been my idea, and I wasn’t yet regretting it, nor would I. I have always been nearly as interested in the Civil War as I am in the American Revolution. Nonetheless, I failed to grasp at first that the Battle of Gettysburg did not really take place on just one field; the battlefield was the entire town, spread over multiple fields and hills and streets. And as a town Gettysburg certainly qualified as a tourist trap, crammed with souvenir stores, the architecture of so many façades ambiguous as to whether they were renovated historic structures or merely built to resemble such. If my family had taken me to this place as a child, I would have loved it. As for now—

My husband and I fumbled a little for what to see. I think I wanted to go somewhere quiet, meditative, where dead bodies lay. I certainly did not want a guided tour or to spend an inordinate amount of money doing anything we could just do ourselves. So although we drove to the visitor center for the national military park, we spent minimal time at that location. For a hefty sum we could have viewed a museum of war artifacts, a presumably impressive cyclorama painting of the battle, and a film; but even if we wanted to pay, time was also limited, and we surmised the film would be intolerably patriotic.

However, we discovered from the information desk that the whole town had signage guiding visitors to various key sites— in other words, there was a self-guiding auto tour option. This naturally cost nothing, so we started to give this a whirl. This, too, failed on account of poorly marked turns, but as the sun climbed higher in the sky we finally found the right sort of thing to see. We found the military cemetery.

When we parked and exited the car in the cemetery’s grass-covered lot, and as we ventured through a gate, initially I saw nothing remarkable. The first graves before us were not from the Civil War, instead serving as markers for soldiers from various wars, either killed in action, missing, or buried here as dead veterans. White, neat little stones with impeccably matched lettering and religious symbols. I knew these stones from a number of visits to Arlington National Cemetery, both for tourism and for the burial of my paternal grandmother, who was the wife of a naval officer. We had to walk for several minutes under the shade of many enormous trees before we found the place where the soldiers of Gettysburg itself had been formally re-interred a few months after the battle.

Somewhere in that vicinity, Abraham Lincoln had made a certain speech on the occasion of said re-interment, but we didn’t look for that site. We knew the speech and we also knew that Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus during the war and had only made the Emancipation Proclamation as a strategic maneuver after repeatedly insisting that the war only concerned secession rather than the practice of holding human beings as chattel. Lincoln begone. We walked to a gentle hillside where row after row of skeletons were laid beneath our feet. It was hard to read the names on the flat stone markers, but it was harder to read things like “412 bodies from New York.” In those cases the names had never been figured out. About 50,000 people died in Gettysburg over the course of three July days, a tally nearly equal to the amount of US deaths in the entire Vietnam War; I almost couldn’t believe how with 50,000 corpses in the same town even a tiny fraction of them could be identified, catalogued, and sorted by state. The ground where we now stood could not remotely hold all of them, either. I wondered how many bodies were never buried and simply rotted in the summer sun and eventually had their bones swept away, months or years later.

The trees nearby were still thick and tall and majestic. Some had to be old enough that the fighting which took place on this very hill also took place under the same shadowing branches. Growing up in New England, I had visited my share of battle sites where I had to confront the knowledge that blood was shed right where I stood, long before I was born. Growing aware of this whole continent’s exploitative past, I have often had to confront the knowledge that there are many places where blood was shed that no one has bothered or known to mark. But as far as I know, too, until looking at Gettysburg’s great trees and anonymous graves I had never stood in a place of old, catastrophic horror. I was standing somewhere that could have still swirled with screams and entrails and flies and powder burns and death stares. And it was silent, so silent.

In that quiet, my eyes welled from time to time. I took one photo, capturing some graves of New Hampshire soldiers, because they came from what I would generally call my home state. In the town where I was raised, the common had a monument to Civil War participants, and this monument stood from the perspective of a small Northern population whose children had enlisted or, just as likely, been conscripted into a faraway festival of slaughter. At long last, I was now walking upon soil where some of those children had met their ends, never going home.

I still cannot describe why I am grateful to meet those hidden bodies at their final destination, especially not after all the bunting and commercialism I had to endure for that purpose. But I was grateful. And then I myself did get to go home.

D. Llywelyn Jones

To be concluded in part 8.

This Latest Eclipse: A Record, Part 6

Sixth part of an eight-part series. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 7Part 8

Let’s begin this by looking back at me, the narrator. I took this photo in the Asheville hotel. As my expression may indicate, my perspective after the eclipse and after witch country was increasingly melancholy. I was enjoying the journey, but I was tasting the end of summer, and the two minute apocalypse I’d witnessed on a Monday afternoon kept bringing tears to my eyes.

The next drive was the other long one. Once we left Asheville, we would stay on the road, aside from the occasional stop for food or gas or restrooms, until we were back across the Mason-Dixon. Though I remarked to my husband that our destination sat in some of the Klanniest country currently documented. Again, “the North” is no true sanctuary.

And the remainder of the South that we saw— this continued to steal my breath in beauty and pain together. GPS navigation sent us right up through more of the Blue Ridge, deep into the Great Smokies. I hadn’t even expected to visit Tennessee, but when we left North Carolina we found ourselves crossing that border as part of our transit to Virginia. The mountains were higher but greener, having just been blessed by recent rain, and low clouds clung as fog to the very tops, rolling down the sides in misty torrents. Smoky indeed. I could have walked in this land and mistaken it for an otherworld.

We saw more churches again in the mountains’ embedded hamlets, and we counted our last flags of Confederate war. I wished the total eclipse had touched this land; I wanted to watch an eclipse at such elevations; I wanted to watch an eclipse anywhere that shimmered with such a sense of its own place.

Eventually, the GPS promised we would be entering West Virginia. This came as less of a surprise than Tennessee, but it excited me in a certain way; this much maligned and mistreated state actually held a taste of the familiar to me. As a child I would visit there about once per summer, joining my parents and their friends at a folk dance camp tucked away in what some people might call the middle of nowhere. My memories of that camp were sacred, not because my parents were still married, and not because of the attention I received for learning the dances very well; instead, because of the site itself. At night most of all. At night I would sit on a hillside and stare down into the valley at the pavilion, the dining tent, the other cabins, and I would hear the last music carrying from a Hardanger fiddle, and then I would look at the slopes around me in the starlight, and then I would gaze at the velvet sky and the million gems of the Milky Way spilling all across. There was music and warmth and stars and the sweetest darkness and in those moments I believed myself an immortal being of grace and wisdom. Of course I was very young, but I felt old in better ways than I can feel old now.

That was West Virginia to me. It held stillness and wonder. And when we drove through it, there were too many lights on the highway and the land nearby was too flat, but I trusted in my memory. We stopped at an Arby’s for dinner and the people working there were young and diverse. The state is very much a state of miners, but if I may make one plea, please remember that there are also other workers, and all of them, the miners and the not-miners, they are people.

By the time we finished that meal, it was past twilight, and we progressed into a thin strip of Maryland and then beyond. This was the Klan-land I had warned of. Estimates by the Southern Poverty Law Center put the highest number of “hate groups” (a complex term) in California, the next highest in Florida, the next in Texas, the next in New York, and the fifth highest in Pennsylvania. Some reports I’ve read have indicated that the southern part of that state holds the most obvious activity although fascist membership certainly doesn’t confine itself county by county.

We saw no burning crosses, no hoods, and no swastikas, but as we turned onto smaller and smaller highways, going directly through various towns, many of the buildings looked run down, and the businesses on major thoroughfares carried a certain aura. Bars, gun shops, strip clubs, motels, often with failing neon signs or little signage at all. There were few streetlights. These may have been pleasant places to live— I couldn’t extrapolate anything like that based on such fleeting impressions— but at night the towns looked liminal, and certain modes of thought can spring up in such in-between topologies, iron-clad ideas that serve as anchor points for people struggling to maintain material roots. I wondered what an eclipse would be like here as well. It would be dark, but not as dark as this. I still couldn’t see the Milky Way, but as we drove out from under a patch of forest, I looked up and noticed dozens of stars that I hadn’t been able to see in years as a citydweller.

And with those stars overhead, easily ten hours since we pulled away from Asheville, we arrived in Gettysburg.

D. Llywelyn Jones

To be continued in part 7.

This Latest Eclipse: A Record, Part 5

Fifth part of an eight-part series. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 6Part 7Part 8

I shot video of our journey into the Blue Ridge, but I managed no good photos. The image here is instead a final capture from South Carolina the night before we headed north.

I love mountains— they are one of my favorite landscapes, one of my favorite places to be— and I was eager to see Asheville for that reason, although other reasons abounded and affirmed themselves. I had heard all the talk about that city serving as the hipster capital of the South, an enclave of craft breweries and tattoo parlors and liberal bumper stickers; unfortunately, a certain parasitic variety of person is attracted to places with artists, artisans, and nature-stewards. But usually those artists, artisans, and stewards themselves have been gathered in those places for the sake of meditative beauty, deep history, and what I will call a witch current— an energy of collective memory grounded in the land. I wondered if the beauty, history, and current were still alive in Asheville. (Some would probably say Asheville sits on a leyline; despite my occult practices I put no stock in such concepts, but I would allow that Asheville is at least haunted in the way I’ve described earlier.)

With the diamond flash of the sun’s corona still glimmering in my mind from the day before, we drove through green and green and green, the elevation climbing. Today’s time on the highway would amount to only an hour, but I savored every minute of it. The closer we drew to this unfamiliar city, the more I noticed houses on mountainsides that made my heart ache. Perhaps those homes were expensive, or perhaps they weren’t, but if you are the sort of person who chooses a house on a mountain, then you are not the sort of person content to live in its shadow. You will live close to this rocky breast of the earth.

Rather than check in to our hotel right away, once in Asheville itself we stopped first for lunch at a chicken & waffles spot. I’d have gladly sought out such a meal without someone else’s suggestion, but this was chiefly a pretext to rendezvous with a friend of mine from bewilderingly distant college years. I had seen her only once since college itself, and we had only been schoolmates for a little while because she transferred to a different university where she finished a horticulture degree. Now she was living in this part of the country, farming and foraging and practicing various crafts. Though not of Appalachia herself, by this point I could have assumed she was, from her new drawl to her encyclopedic knowledge of local plants. Like me she was a witch, and it was good to speak with another witch after the eclipse.

Catching up with this friend, I was stunned by the true extent of the region’s interest in living off the land. Not only was my friend able to successfully provide most of her own food for herself during the summertime, but she could further make ends meet by teaching other people to forage. I have not encountered such widespread interest in New England; I suspect that the classes and attendees are there if you truly look, but suburban sprawl inhibits all but certain varieties of homesteading in the main population centers, and the rural areas are too thinly peopled for an entire foraging school to function. Meanwhile, the Asheville metropolitan area boasts close to half a million people, and yet the land seems better preserved. For now.

Regardless, I also received the impression that in the heart of Appalachia live a larger proportion of people who have preserved local folklore, traditional agrarian or hunter-gatherer lifestyles, etc. This is not due to some lack of old traditions in other parts of the United States, and it is not due to some greater indigenous presence; for good or ill, the majority of indigenous people in this country live in urban centers, and many of the Appalachian traditions come from settler cultures, though indigenous influence and voices are not gone. I am not in a position to comment further along those lines, but my core thought about Appalachian residents following “old ways” is that the region has stayed desperately impoverished more or less since colonization— so along the Blue Ridge and surrounding vicinity, skills like subsistence farming have proven more important there than elsewhere. There are some hipsters in Asheville, indeed I saw plenty of them, but outside of the downtown temples to Quirkiness™ is something else, something older, and it moved me to hear my friend explain it.

After the lunch, my witch friend fittingly showed us the way to a witch shop, always a complicated notion in my mind but a beautiful set of rooms in this instance. I did buy several things there for private purposes. And then, following some frozen custards for dessert, my husband and I had to bid my friend farewell so that she could go about some evening commitments, but the two of us continued our Asheville excursions after finally stopping at our hotel.

Once we had washed and freshened up, our stomachs were very ready for dinner, and that taste of barbecue the day before had assuredly not been enough. Here in this western part of the state, we paradoxically tried Eastern Carolina style pulled pork, and although my favorite style to date has always been Memphis, this might now come a close second. I can’t remember the last time I gorged myself so thoroughly; I virtually inhaled pork, fries, hush puppies, and other wonderful Southern delicacies until I could barely move my body. I will be eternally grateful for my friend’s recommendation to that restaurant, though my digestion probably hated us both.

The Asheville stint concluded— appropriately, perhaps— with a trip to the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, after we were up the next morning. I had already known that one day wouldn’t be enough, but I hadn’t expected to feel the need for an entire week or more. The Folk Art Center was filled with beautiful things, half of which I would have gladly given my left arm to buy and support the local artist, and the other half of which I would have gladly given some other limb if it meant I could learn how to make such beauty myself. And the parkway itself was so peaceful and atmospheric that I could have driven aimlessly on it for hours. Yes, there was a witch current. I felt it in the sighing of the leaves and the shape of the foothills. I will go back: to learn and revere.

D. Llywelyn Jones

To be continued in part 6.

This Latest Eclipse: A Record, Part 4

Fourth part of an eight-part series. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

I could position the eclipse itself as a political happening. And I do not feel shy about that option. Of course eclipses are omens. They are omens even when nothing specific happens afterward, and they are omens even though many people have entered a “rational age” of placing little stock in supernatural foci. I might even venture to say that they are omens even when no one is there to see them.

An eclipse is a statement of continuation. The moon will continue to obscure the sun every eighteen months or so, no matter what humans do. In many millions of years, total eclipses will then cease because the moon will have drifted too far away from the earth to provide the precise coverage, and humans will likely have no reason nor means to counteract this. Eventually the sun will be too big for any moon of ours to eclipse it. Eventually the sun will eat the earth, rather than the Fenris wolf eating the sun. It is all continuation. It is all a reminder, not of human insignificance, for in fact we are quite significant and beautiful and terrible, but a reminder of all the other significant things that happen beyond our lives. We toil and murder and love and violate, and these events occur however they do, but we are all in orbit about something greater, and that greater thing is only one of billions of its own kind. Our significance is a jewel to cherish in the web of so many other glittering gems carpeting the cosmos.

When we are keeping the right rhythms, it is well to look up and take the occasional eclipse as a sign of favor. When we are keeping unsteadier rhythms, it is well to look up and think of our place.

All the same, on the 21st of August in Greenville, I did not think much about whether specific reactionary individuals were calling the eclipse a sign of the deity’s wrath, or whether others glibly framed it as a celestial curse upon specific ruling powers. Such a specific astronomic occurrence, lasting barely two minutes, only a couple hundred heartbeats, demanded generality and openness.

I had spent another restless night by the time I woke, if I even slept at all. It was about seven in the morning, much earlier than my usual stirring. I described it to my aunt as feeling like a child on Christmas morning. We had a prolonged, meandering, lazy breakfast in her little apartment, which was relatively new. She had decorated it with her typical eye for art and design, making a compact one-bedroom environment feel like a contemporary museum. Her calico cat kept winding around my legs; since my aunt had no children, any cat of hers was my cousin instead. I was sad not to see my uncle, who had died of Alzheimer’s several years prior, but it was an acceptable compromise that my aunt had been building a happy life in his wake.

Once she, my husband, and I were all sufficiently awake, she took us on a short tour of Greenville, only the second city in South Carolina I’d ever seen. The heat clung to every fiber of my frame, and soon so did my clothes, and my sweat was salty in my eyes. There were unfamiliar species of trees and bushes, but also the familiar red bricks of a former mill town, reminding me of New England despite the flora and the accents. I was struck by the number of art galleries, performing arts centers, and outdoor installations, the whole environment seeming that of people who cared very much for aesthetics and stimuli. For better or worse I consider that welcoming, even though many creative spheres do have certain notable barriers to participation.

We walked across the beautiful bridge above the beautiful Reedy River in the beautiful Falls Park, a staggering achievement of botanical experience. The park was already overrun by eclipse chasers. Some were even sitting on the rocks in the very middle of the falls. Hundreds of telescopes and cameras were already trained on the sky, and the greenery was covered by all the impossible colors of beach towels and camping tents. So far, we could see no clouds.

To make our final preparations, we bought barbecue to-go for lunch, and then we returned to my aunt’s apartment for camera tests, water stockpiling, viewing glasses, and a little rest before going back into the ninety-degree temperatures. I kept fanatically checking the time; there seemed no point in having ourselves and our camera all positioned appropriately right when partial coverage began, but we did want to experience a decent portion of that phase. Once it was supposedly about ten minutes underway, we ventured back out.

The apartment complex sat a couple of blocks across from a stadium where some event was taking place; I was never entirely sure if it was just eclipse viewers or that a sporting match had been scheduled that afternoon, but various individuals on the PA kept making remarks about the eclipse regardless. I could imagine those disembodied voices proving a distraction for some people, but I liked the feeling of a nearby communal gathering, just as I liked that we weren’t the only people standing or sitting about on the grass-and-dirt lawn that my aunt had previously scouted as our viewing station. The next eclipse that I watch— and there will be another— I would equally enjoy perfect solitude, but for my first I looked forward to experiencing many other humans’ reactions, not merely my own.

Within a minute of setting out our things on the nearest bench, the three of us were already wearing our glasses and craning our necks to get our first glimpse of the moon’s silhouette. I don’t remember which of us caught it first, but whoever it was made a noise of glee. Through the special glasses, the sun looked like a sweet tangerine in a sea of black, with a small bite taken out of the upper right edge. Very small, but there.

To my initial dismay, this sight then went behind a cloud for perhaps a quarter of an hour. Clouds, now there were clouds! Although a known risk from the outset, we could have taken no precautions against them. On the street I’d seen at least one vehicle parked with some sort of radar equipment for tracking clearer skies, but none of my viewing party owned any such luxuries, nor did we want to go driving, even if the streets weren’t as congested as feared. So we simply had to wait the clouds out. We could only hope. When the one cloud passed, another loomed and eventually took its place, then the pattern repeated several more times.

We ate our barbecue, sucked down water, sheltered in the shade of a tree. I watched some other onlookers staring up at the sky even more than I was doing, and I also watched some who were perfectly happy to ignore the partial phase. I certainly didn’t understand that. When I was a child in elementary school, we viewed a partial eclipse with a pinhole camera, but with the glasses I could look directly at the sun, an uncanny thing in its own right, and I could more profoundly appreciate the oddity of its ever-shrinking crescent shape. The moon was supposed to look like a crescent. Not the sun.

After a while, we didn’t even need a pinhole; nature gave us one. The tree over our bench had its shadow cast before us, and the gaps between leaves were fine enough that we suddenly noticed that dozens of tiny crescents were dotting the ground. I started to understand we were passing some threshold and the world was irrevocably changing. In cities and towns and fields and forests outside the belt of totality, this quaint effect would function as the only material alteration by the eclipse, but in our case it heralded more to come.

Not long after two o’clock, barely half an hour from the object of the pilgrimage, more things began happening. “Isn’t it darker?” we asked each other, wondering, fascinated, entranced. I had read that darkness would not really fall except for those two forthcoming minutes, but everything I looked at still seemed dim, like a filtered or underexposed photograph. White almost seemed lilac. It was like the last hour before sunset, but with short shadows that grew ever sharper as the light creating them now narrowed and narrowed.

I had also read that totality would bring a cold air, but I was cooler already. The sweat was drying on my skin. I started to shake. All my research and enthusiasm could not stop my body from confusion and foreboding. I took off my straw hat, no longer needing it.

I checked the sun again. It was growing as thin as a fingernail cut close to the quick. “Oh my god,” I said to no god, soft and afraid. My husband and I hurried to set up the camera’s tripod, to aim the camera approximately where the sun would be shining and then un-shining in just a few more minutes. I’m shaking again just remembering this. We almost dropped the camera altogether. I fumbled to start a timelapse video on my phone, for curiosity’s sake. The roar of the crowd in the stadium was growing very loud. I thought of every essay and every explanation I had read about what an eclipse is like, and they were all right, and they were all wrong.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” declared the voice on the distant PA. “Ladies and gentlemen.” I was not a lady and I was not a gentleman. I have always been an eclipse myself, one object obscuring another, the moon and the sun making dark love, the being that dwells in the emptiness and is the emptiness. I was about to look at myself. The voice heightened, expanded in visceral awe, echoing across the entire frozen city.

“We have totality!”

I was mouthing prayers and praises and nonsense to myself through those three words, and then I whimpered and then I did scream, tearing off my glasses to blind myself with something beyond light.

It is as they say. It was a hole in the sky.

Everyone can grasp that it was only the moon before the sun’s disc, but it was not only that at all. It was a hole, truly. The sky turned a brilliant, rich blue, purest azure, and in what seemed like the center hung the shimmering diamond fire in an apocalyptic ring with absolute blackness in its middle. I immediately wept. No poet ever quite knew the sublime if they did not see this. No mountain was grand enough, no storm furious enough. I started to grow faint, losing my balance from weak knees and tilted head.

My last vestiges of common sense forced me to look down for half a minute, drinking in the rest of the miracle. The whole horizon glowed with dusk in panorama. I saw Venus. “I can see Venus,” I sobbed. Somehow I hadn’t dropped my phone, somehow the timelapse was still recording, shuddery though it would eventually look. Our own bodies were dark, and my husband was struggling to get a good photo. I urged him to stop trying in a few more seconds, it wasn’t worth it, not if he didn’t have a proper view of what my aunt and I could see. We burst into laughter as we realized the camera’s lens cap was still on; my husband then tore it away and managed several shots at different shutter speeds.

Time and space are very much relative. In two minutes I wept and cried and worshipped a lifetime’s worth of tears and moans and gods. And we cheered like ancestor after ancestor did when the bright light flared back and the hole went away. I am now weeping again. Hail the sun, and hail the moon, and hail their love, and hail the great absence.

I have experienced endorphin rushes from a number of different sources, some legal, some illegal, some occupying a ground in between. None of those highs have lasted as long as what I felt humming through my body in the eclipse’s aftermath. The humming stayed in me for hours and hours, carrying me through a mouthwatering dinner of trout and rice and sweet Moscato and crème brûlée, then through an evening walk back through Falls Park. The real sunset held not a candle to the false one, yet it was still beautiful for having seen the false one first. As for the photographs, only one came out well, but it too is extremely perfect, though purely as an image, not as a representation of something real.

D. Llywelyn Jones

To be continued in part 5.