Top: The 2017 North American Eclipse viewed from Marshall Ferry Cemetery, Rising Sun, Illinois
A person quite dear to me once said that Breathe, the first song on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon always brought me to mind. “Breathe, breathe in the air. Don’t be afraid to care …”
Music is more than the soundtrack of our lives. It works its way into us. Some songs are as much a part of our fiber as our family and friends. Dark Side of the Moon is one such piece for me, being a part of my life for over forty years. There’s not a sentiment in any song I’d rather be associated with.
It was the eclipse, the Great North American Eclipse, August 21, 2017, spanning the entire breadth of the north American continent, cutting a swath of darkness and marketing across the United States. As luck would have it, the point where totality would be the longest was less than an hour from here.
There is such a thing as eclipse snobbery. The important part to these people is the moment of totality, about being able to take off your glasses and see the corona. For me it was something different. I just didn’t know what yet.
It was the morning of the eclipse and I still hadn’t decided where to go. I could head to the Shawnee Forest which would be in totality, but I was pretty certain that traffic would be a nightmare. I kept putting it off.
Now, with the eclipse itself only an hour so away, I had to make a decision.
I grabbed a blue tooth speaker, because the soundtrack was preordained. There was really only one album that would work for this journey. I took a bottle of mead out of the pantry and threw the cork away. It was warm, sweet and it needed to be gone before I got back.
It’s a trick I learned from the Irish, who when making a dangerous crossing of a bit of ocean, would toss the cork from the bottle of poteen into the water, because you might as well finish the bottle because you didn’t know if you were going to make it to the other shore. I grabbed a peach, an offering of sorts and set off. As I pulled out of the driveway, the kids at the elementary school across the street were already coming out, wearing their eclipse glasses. I took the direct route to the country, intending to cut across. I started the music …
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When I’d thought about where to watch this over the preceding weeks, I kept thinking Dogtown Cemetery, or to use its proper name, Marshall Ferry Cemetery in Rising Sun, Illinois. At the cemetery I’d have only 99.4% totality. I decided fuck totality. I wanted a moment that meant something more than a visual effect. I needed to be alone.
New Haven is where the first settlers came into this area, about 1800, led by Daniel Boone’s brother. From New Haven you could see the Dogtown Hills. To many, if not most residents of the area, the hills, the town, the cemetery is Dogtown. Originally, a clever settler started a ferry at the river there, Marshall Ferry. A small town sprung up, a village anywhere else. It was given the name Rising Sun. When the bridge was built some miles away, the town withered, or at least never grew. Today it’s a handful of houses, and a graveyard on the hill overlooking it.
Two thousand years ago, there was a village there as well. There was also a graveyard on the hill, one of great importance. These were the Hopewell people, and they inhabited this land for about 800 years, between 400 BC and 400 AD. It was abandoned for who knows how long, though when they excavated some of the mounds at Rising Sun, they found later native Americans had also buried their dead in these mounds. It’s much the same as what was happening in neolithic Britain about the same times, later cultures burying their dead in the barrows of those who preceded them.
It happens here to this day. Marshall Ferry Cemetery is an active graveyard, still accepting burials, and has since the first European settlers arrived. There are people there I know buried there, relatives, friends as well as their ancestors.
It’s about a fifteen or twenty minute drive to Dogtown from Carmi, and totality was less than a half hour away. I get turned around in the Dogtown hills. I didn’t have time for that now.
I was telling time by Dark Side of the Moon. When I reached the Wilson Mounds, just a couple miles or so from Dogtown Cemetery, I stopped, put on my glasses and looked to the sun. There was a pretty healthy chunk of it already missing, more than half of the moon was obscuring the yellow disk.
And sure enough, even that close, I went the wrong direction. I was on the second half of the album now, the guitar solo in Money, things felt wild, panicky and out of control.
I made a U turn, found the right road and as the hills of Dogtown loomed larger, I noticed something unusual. The power lines along the road were lined with birds, facing the sun, watching. They would scatter as I approached, and looking in the rear view mirror, I saw they went right back to their perch. At least I knew I wouldn’t be watching it alone.
Another trait the Hopewells and later Mississippian culture share with the Neolithic Britains -like the Barrows on top of Waden Hill, Windmill Hill and most notably, West Kennet Long Barrow, the Indians built their mounds often on the high ground. As a result, many natives of the area know there are Indian mounds around Dogtown, but don’t realize when they’re standing right on top of some of them. Or burying their dead in them.
The tallest mound, at least in the cemetery itself is at the highest point, overlooking what would have been the village, the new village having sprung up now below. There a wooden cross has been erected – a shadow of making Christian sites out of the pagan perhaps? There’s also a bench, and it’s where I found myself.
When that fat old sun in the sky is falling
Summer evenin’ birds are calling
Children’s laughter in my ears
The last sunlight disappears
I wasn’t alone. I knew I’d meet ghosts up there, for I was bringing them with me, and that was part of the reason I came. It was another visit to this cemetery, less than a month earlier and a happier Pink Floyd album was playing then. One of hope and at times, domestic bliss. It’s what that moment felt like, complete with the sound of children’s laughter. Sometimes you live life like a tightrope walker. That day we all found bliss being that high, nothing on either side to catch you if you fall, just the complete certainty that you won’t with the sun shining on your face. But today, there were gusts up there on the wire and the sun was eclipsed by the moon. I knew all that was left was the falling.
My truck climbed up the steep road that led to the cemetery. I parked, grabbed my supplies, my speaker still playing away … “the lunatic is on the grass” and started up the hill among the graves.
Dark Side of the Moon is also about madness, and how the pressures of life will drive you to it. Defining madness is hard. Sometimes it’s hard to see if you’re mad, or the rest of the world is mad. Some of us look into the eyes of the ones we love and see insanity there, while they look into our own and see the same thing. Sometimes you need the moon to block the light to see the truth.
There are times it’s hard to see what’s right before your eyes. Sometimes we don’t want to, it’s too horrifying to look. So we go on oblivious to what’s really happening, trusting that things will get better.
Sometimes they get much, much worse.
I drank from my bottle and fell back on the bench, looking up. It was noticeably darker, not like night, not like evening even, but the greens were richer, electric, the sky a different shade of blue.
It got another shade darker in the graveyard.
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It’s easier to see past the moment when the moon is eclipsing the sun. The shine is missing, the glare is gone and you can see further, to the end. Laying there on the bench, I saw the future and it wasn’t a matter of conjecture. More like a mathematical certainty.
And if the dam breaks open many years too soon
And if there is no room upon the hill
And if your head explodes with dark forbodings too
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon
And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear
You shout and no one seems to hear
And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon
What I saw in the shadow the moon was as clear as day. I tried shouting later, but as the song says, no one seemed to hear. I was just another Henny Penny running around shouting that the sky was falling, when I was supposed to be quiet, pretending all was well. The ghosts I found in the cemetery were already memories, no longer living to me. I knew it from that point on.
I cried. It was the last time I cried, and since that day I’ve gone through some serious shit. Everything I saw there, looking up into the sun hearing the galloping hoofbeats of the apocalypse coming my way, came to pass, just as I saw it. But nothing has brought tears since. Numb.
Then the Pink Floyd crashed into that D chord that signifies the beginning of Eclipse, and if there’s a more majestic moment in music, I’ve yet to hear it. I check the clock, totality had begun.
All that you touch
And all that you see
All that you taste
All you feel
And all that you love
And all that you hate
All you distrust
All you save
And all that you give
And all that you deal
And all that you buy
Beg, borrow, or steal
And all you create
And all you destroy
And all that you do
And all that you say
And all that you eat
And everyone you meet
And all that you slight
And everyone you fight
And all that is now
And all that is gone
And all that’s to come
And everything under the sun is in tune
But the sun is eclipsed by the moon
The album ended, and I heard the night sounds. The insects, different birds, but mostly, the silence. You don’t realize the volume of the ambient sounds of the daytime, till they’re suddenly missing. I would imagine even the farmers at that moment had stopped their work and was looking skyward.
I lay there and tried to take a photo of the sun through my glasses, but it came out tiny and I gave up and just felt. What would have the native Americans thought at this moment? Were they here now? There was a presence up there. I was almost certain if I looked down the hill, I’d see people from some several different ages, looking to the sky. I didn’t feel alone.
Then the moment passed. It wasn’t from looking at the clock, the sun didn’t suddenly appear, but the change was visceral and almost immediate. The light came back slowly, the crickets and cicadas gave way to the morning birds, chirping as though the sun was coming up and then almost immediately stopping again as it came out fully risen. I sat up and sliced the peach. I ate half, left the other half as an offering, a thanks to those who shared the moment with me. I poured half the bottle of mead onto the mound, where it could drip down to those thirsty souls buried beneath.
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It’s been almost three months since that day. I finally unloaded the images from my camera and there it was, the little speck of light on a field of black. I zoomed in. Eclipse. A bit blurry, but more like the camera captured my imagination at that moment, looking as much like an eye as anything else.
Moments like that make soothsayers of us all, if we choose to look that direction. There are those that say these synchronized moments in life are a sign of being on the right track, enlightenment even. I didn’t time my trip so that Eclipse came on at the moment of totality. I didn’t leave the house after planning exactly what time to set off to reach the cemetery in time. It all just fell into place, because I was going someplace magical. Not Marshall Ferry Cemetery, not to view the eclipse, but someplace inside. A dark place, but one I needed to visit.
It was a day of darkness for me, on a day which for most people is a once in a lifetime experience. But oddly enough, our little town is on track to be under totality for another eclipse, about six years from now. Plenty of time to come out of the darkness, and into the light.