Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Sidereal

Slowly, over the course of an hour, the moon is moving in front of the sun. Eventually it will block out the light. I'm standing in a ruined city called Side on the Turkish coast. Side meant Pomegranate in some ancient Anatolian language, and because we approached these ruins by mistake, across dunes (rather than the news-crew and NASA-trap tourist town) they were a fantastic surprise. We felt like nineteenth-century travellers. What a place to watch an eclipse! Ruins heaped in sand and flowering sweet bay. In the bay branches, plump blackcaps, scores of them, snatching and eating leggy, winged things from the sticky flowers. Parties of spectacled bulbuls, too.

So here we are, in a little wilderness of ruins, dunes and scrub. To the left of us, the dunes have made inroads into the ruined city, heaped to half-buried walls. Behind them, the sands are running with lizards and crested larks. The larks have a simple song, a little curlicue of notes that sounds exactly like a distant mistle thrush. And because mistle thrushes start singing in Britain in February, the sound is most incongrous, recalling blustery late-winter woodland rides. Not pale desert crossed with tortoise-tracks.

So we stand, a little pack of people on a dune-top. Similar packs of people everywhere, some focusing telescopes onto flat white paper to show first contact: here is the tiniest scoop out of the side of the sun. It takes a long while between first and second contact, when the sun is completely covered by the moon; a long, steady diminution in the amount of sun reaching the world.

For a long while, my brain tricks me. It has a vested interest in reassurance: nothing is wrong, it says. It tells me I’m wearing reactive sunglasses. That's why I’m seeing the world through discrete, tinted glass. That’s why everything, the luggage-strap leaves of dune grass under my toes, the broken walls, bay trees, the sea in front, the mountains behind: everything’s darkly fine.

Then, of course, I remember I’m not wearing sunglasses, which hits with the bad-dream force of an arm brought down hard across a piano keyboard: the psychological equivalent of a discordant crash as I suddenly find myself having a fraught little struggle with my brain. And I shiver. Surely it was absurdly hot here an hour ago?

There’s a horrible old chestnut about boiling a frog to death. Put a frog in a pan of cold water and put it on the stove, and apparently the blithe amphibian will fail to notice the incremental rise in temperature until it’s dead. There's something of the particular horror of that story in what I'm experiencing. Some strong need to warn people, to jump out of the pan. Everything’s changing but our brains aren’t equipped to notice things on this scale.

My eyes dance over the landscape in an anxious search for familiarity. Lots of things are familiar. Look, groups of people. Bushes. Sea. Walls. The shapes are reassuring, but the content isn't. Everything is the wrong colour, the wrong hue. Remember those day-for-night filters they used in old westerns? Also called La Nuit Américaine. Watching afternoon matinees as a child, I assumed that night-time in America was different to night-time here. Much later I realised it was day, stopped down and filmed through a blue filter. So: imagine you’re watching a night scene in a cheesy 1950s technicolour western, with Gary Cooper hiding behind a crag, rifle in hand, blah blah. Doesn’t the night look strange? Now imagine it with an orange, rather than blue wash. Everything looks heavy, looks damp and alien. The sand is dark orange, as in late evening, but the sun is high in the sky. We’re all mesmerised by the refracted point-source glitter from the sea in front of us. I don't know the physics, but the white glitter on the dark mediterranean is far too glittery and tiny, somehow. And on the ground, right by our feet, strange things are happening around the edges of shadows. What it is isn't clear. Smeary, chafed edges? Where you expect to see sun-dappled shadow cast on the sand through branches—confidently as you expect any other unacknowledged constant of the world—you are confounded: amidst the shade, a perfect host of tiny crescents, hundreds of them, moving against the sand as wind pushes the branches. The backs of the swallows that trace their sinuous hunting flights over the ruins are no longer iridescent blue in the sun, but deep indigo.

The Swallows are calling in alarm; alerted, I search for the cause. A Levant Sparrowhawk is flying over. It’s slipping down the sky, losing height, stymied in its search for thermals to soar upon; they’re all disappearing in the rapidly cooling air. I fix upon the sparrowhawk, which shrugs its way north-west, falling all the while.

I check the sun, again, through the eclipse glasses. A tiny, finger-nail curve of the sun is left, at the top left edge. The landscape has become insistently alien: short, mid-day shadows in a dark, orange world. The sea is purple. You can see Venus in the sky, quite high, to the right.

And then, with a chorus of cheers and whistles and applause, I stare at the sky as the sun slides away, and the day does, and: impossibly, impossibly, above us is a stretch of black, soft black sky and a hole in the middle of it. A round hole, blacker than anything you've ever seen, fringed with an intensely soft ring of white fire. Applause? Applause? My heart is in my throat and my eyes actually fill with tears. It is insane, really insane. Goodbye intellectual apprehension. Hello something else entirely.

Totality is so incomprehensible for your mental machinery that your physical response becomes hugely apparent. Your intellect can't grasp any of this. Not the dark, nor the sunset clouds on every horizon, nor the stars; just that extraordinary wrongness, up there, that pulls the eyes towards it. The exhilaration is just-barely contained terror. I felt tiny and huge all at once; and both as lonely and singular as I've ever felt, and as merged and part of the crowd as it was possible to be. A shared, intensely private experience.

Honestly, there’s nothing I can write to express all this. It’s laughable. Opposites! Ha! Let’s conjure big binary oppositions and grand narratives and break everything and mend it at the same moment. You want big binary oppositions? Sun and Moon. Darkness and Light. Sea and Land, Breath and no breath, life and death. A total eclipse makes history laughable, makes you feel both precious and disposable, makes the inclinations of the world incomprehensible, like someone trying to engage a stone in discussions about the price of Heat magazine.

I am dizzy and my skin crawls. Everything's fallen away. There's a hole in the sky where the sun should be! I need to sit down. For the reassuring reality of sand under my rump. Or perhaps in response to overwhelming awe. I sit on the ground and stare up at the hole in the sky and the dead world about me is a perfect vision—with its ruins and broken columns—of the Underworld of my child's imagination, pace Roger Lancelyn Green.

And then something extraordinary, something happens that still makes my heart rise in my chest and eyes blur, even in recollection. For there’s something even more affecting than watching the sun disappear into a hole. Watching the sun climb out of it.

There I am, sitting on the beach in the underworld, with the standing dead. It is cold, and a loose wind blows through the darkness. But then, from the lower edge of the blank, black disk of the dead sun, bursts a perfect point of brilliance. It leaps and burns. It’s unthinkably fierce, unbearably bright, something (I blush to say it, but here it comes) like a word. And thus begins the world again. Instantly.

Joy, relief, gratitude; an avalanche of emotion. Wonder. Is all made to rights, now? Is all remade? From a bay tree, struck into existence a moment ago, a spectacled bulbul calls a greeting to the new dawn.

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