The Sun Was Going and the World Was Wrong

The February 1979 solar eclipse as seen from Glasgow, Montana. (Bill Wunsch / Getty Images)

At The Atlantic, Ross Andersen excerpts Annie Dillard’s classic 1982 personal essay, “Total Eclipse,” from her new collection, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New.

Dillard writes in exquisite detail about the haunting, surreal experience of witnessing the last solar eclipse to have been visible on the mainland of the United States on February 26th, 1979, after driving with her husband five hours inland in Washington State to catch the view from a hill top.

The full text of the essay will remain on the site for free until next Tuesday, August 22 — the day after “The Great American Eclipse,” which is inspiring eclipse tourism, and lots of astrological predictions.

Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams, and the alpenglow was upon it. The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountaintops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.

I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.

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