A Celestial Sense of Place

LoraKim's sister Linda died three years ago, and in the gatherings of remembrance and grief, we met Linda's best friend, Dale, and her husband, John (names changed because, well, they're kinda private folk), and Dale became LoraKim's friend, and by extension, Dale-and-John became friends of LoraKim-and-me. I don't think it was explicitly stipulated in Linda's will that we would inherit her friend, but it may as well have been. Since we met Dale and John and hiked together with them several miles down western Virginia woodland trails to a waterfall where Linda had wanted half her ashes scattered, Dale and John have been encouraging us to come visit them in east Tennessee. The years were rolling by, and I don't know if we ever would have gotten around to it. In fact, it took a major cosmic event aligning the heavens to make it happen: a solar eclipse path of totality passing over their home.

Dale and John live on a 100-acre farm in a county the same area as mine (Westchester County, NY), but with scarcely one-twentieth the population, amidst surrounding counties that are as sparse or sparser. They grow pecks and pecks of corn and vegetables, but most of the land is pasture for 41 head of cattle, and one donkey. Dale has a tender heart and a particular soft spot for suffering animals. In and around the house are maybe a half-dozen dogs she has rescued and in some cases bestowed significant nursing exertions upon to bring back to health. (The cows, meanwhile, will be sold to feedlots to spend the final six months of their lives in abject misery before being slaughtered. I remind myself that I, too, am inconsistent.) Dale and John were born and have spent their lives in this rural region between Knoxville and Chattanooga, as had their parents before them. In ways both overt and subtle, they manifested a grounded sense of place that my life, with all its moves, will never know. They know who they are, for place and identity have merged. As Wendell Berry said, "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are."

When the hour of the eclipse approached, we drove up a country road to a hill where stood an old community center that was once a one-room schoolhouse. About 50 or 60 folks gathered there, $5 per car for parking: a mix of locals and out-of-state visitors. The visitors included five young Hasidic Jewish men from New York who came south to see the eclipse and seemed to have randomly stumbled upon this particular hill. Dale earnestly invited the Hasidic men back to her home for dinner, though I'm pretty sure she had no idea what their kosher needs required. They thanked her, said they would enjoy that, but must decline, and gave a credible excuse that made no reference to diet.

Then the sky darkened. A few stars appeared. The blocked sun was high in the mid-day sky, yet 360 degrees around us the horizon glowed red as if at sundown. Cicadas and crickets struck up their eventide chorus. The temperature dropped.

Imagine the Earth scaled to a one-inch diameter. Imagine a quarter-inch moon, two-and-a-half feet from the Earth. At this scale, the sun is nine feet in diameter and nearly two-tenths of a mile away. For two and a half minutes, the moon's quarter-inch disk fit precisely over the sun's nine-foot disk. A couple Unitarians, a handful of Hasids, and a whole passel of Baptists stood in dim, platinum-tinted awe beneath a fiery, hollowed-out corona -- on a tiny hill on the inch-wide planet we share. For a time -- and the fading sense of it lingers with me still -- we knew where we were in the universe, and who we were.

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