December 2012 – January 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Lights Out

By Ashley Hay
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Solar eclipse in Queensland

The weather was all anyone talked about as we flew towards Cairns. Radar scans and long-range forecasts were keenly analysed. Among those containing their excitement, a higher than usual number were reading sci-fi books – Isaac Asimov was particularly popular. The reason for all this: we were flying in to see the sun eclipsed. “And isn’t it lovely that we want to come to see it, in these days of live streaming and YouTube,” someone from Melbourne said.

When our plane landed and light rain spotted its windows, people openly sighed and despaired. The unreliability of a clear sky in this part of the world on the cusp of the wet season was starting to sink in. Over the ensuing hours, every glimpse of blue sky was fuel for optimism.

The known mechanics of planetary motion have stripped eclipses of much of the terror they must have once inspired. “Don’t tell me science doesn’t impact on everyday life,” muttered one local scientist. “We’d all have been hysterical about the apocalypse of the sun disappearing if it wasn’t for Galileo.” But eclipses still hold power. All around Cairns, people congregated and fretted, sporting souvenir T-shirts from eclipses past, and introducing themselves in terms of the occultations they’d seen. “Just five,” said one lady from Iowa, rattling off the particulars like a pedigree, but she knew someone whose count had passed 30.

“I’ve been praying about the weather ever since we got to Australia,” she said as horizontal rain drove in on a fierce nor’-easter. Somehow the scale of what we were hoping to witness – the phenomenon of night during day – made the appeal to a deity seem appropriate.

 “We had seen the world dead,” wrote Virginia Woolf of 25 sunless seconds in the north of England in 1927. “There was no world,” wrote Annie Dillard of another total eclipse – 168 seconds, on that occasion, in north-west America in 1979. “We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the earth rolled down.”

In Cairns, there were to be 124 seconds of totality. “Stay at home,” counselled local websites and media outlets. “If you can see the sun in the sky in the morning, you can see the eclipse where you are.”

But there was something compellingly communal about the event. And so at sunrise on 14 November, beneath puffy clouds and pale sun – no rain – we headed down to Trinity Beach, joining a procession of every sort of person imaginable. Offshore, the dawn was colouring up, and the Cairns coastline, all ridges and headlands, was a pleated spectacle. A huge bank of cloud loomed, billowing and ballooning, and behind it the eclipse was already underway.

At last, at 6.10 am, came a chink in the clouds. There, visible through special glasses that had seemed impenetrably dark, was the bright orange disc of the sun, one sliver of it consumed by a solid blackness unrecognisable as our benign and silvery moon. “That’s as good as it’s going to get,” said a nearby pessimist as the clouds closed again, but it seemed outrageous that the weather, the atmosphere, wouldn’t comply with the expectations of these several thousand people. At 6.25 came another break of clear sky and another glimpse of the diminution of our star: I could hang on to science as much as I wanted to, but here was the end of the world, in front of me, and very nigh.

The eeriness began properly about ten minutes later, as the sun narrowed down to a single slit of fire. All around, the light began to thicken and change, and it wasn’t just the wind I felt pressing against me as all colour drained away to leave a weird, spectral monochrome. The air was cold, the ocean was loud, and stars were suddenly out. At 6.39 am: totality – as if the world had slipped away from itself. It hurt, somehow, to witness such a huge and terrific thing.

Then, unbelievably, before those two long minutes had ended, the sun reasserted itself, the bright burst of its corona transcending that peculiar blackness to pulse and dazzle like a halo of far-off fireworks. The silent awe of the crowd broke into applause, cheers and whistles.

All too quickly, the earth turned, the moon moved on, the moment passed, and the tropical colour came rushing back: it takes so little sun to make a day. The waves surged a little further up the sand than people had anticipated, and the first row of spectators leapt to their feet with their belongings. Others packed up their cardboard glasses, their telescopes, their homemade cameras obscura, and wandered off to leave the sun and the moon to finish the second half of their transaction by themselves, and relatively unobserved. The weather had behaved; the clouds had parted; the show had gone on; and the brilliance of the day was only magnified by the darkness that had snatched it so briefly away.

Ashley Hay

Ashley Hay won last year’s Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing. Her last novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick Award and the People’s Choice category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published this April. She lives in Brisbane.

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