We drove, hours before sunrise, south on the interstate to a vineyard near Sweetwater, a small town in Tennessee. Only 6,500 people live in Sweetwater. The town braced for more than 50,000 expected to arrive with the sun.
We arrived in the dark, cars parked on the edge of a narrow lane leading to the vineyard. Strangers chatted quietly in the dark. There was a hushed reverence like the foyer of a funeral. When the gates opened we drove into a field of freshly mowed grass, aligned in rows like an audience at a drive-in movie waiting for the show to begin, camp chairs arranged beneath a canopy, sheltered from the rising sun. A truck from New York was parked on one side, a truck from Virginia on the other. The sound of the Grateful Dead drifted across the field. Ramble on Rose.
The grass ain’t greener
The wine ain’t sweeter
Either side of the hill.
On the other side of the tarmacked road were fields of Muscadine vines. Muscadine grapes are native to the southeastern states. They can be made into a wine that has “…a hill-billy-red-neck-cheap-wine-get-drunk persona.” The primary flavors are ripe banana, bruised apple, lime peel, cranberry, and rubber cement. It’s not what most people expect from a wine.
There was subdued feeling to the crowd, a reticence unexpected from so many people gathered in an open field with coolers of beer and wine. Conversations were mostly muted. It seemed like a crowd at a camp meeting waiting for the revival tent to open. Even the people waiting an hour in line for the single outhouse waited patiently, introducing themselves to nearby strangers, sharing their names and their history—where they had begun their journey to arrive in an empty field near a small Tennessee town waiting an hour to pee. The sense of anticipation was as vibrant at the chorus of summer cicadas in the surrounding woods.
Cicadas are the loudest insects in the world. Some species can produce a song (of sorts) in excess of 120 decibels. They huddle together to amplify their sounds. At close range it can be painful for humans and distracting for birds. Even cicadas protect themselves by voluntarily becoming deaf to their own music.
These were the dog-day cicadas, the ones that sing in the heat of each summer, not those that rise in biblical numbers from the cool spring soil every 13 or 17 years. Those emerge in such a glut that predators are satiated before the brood is threatened. It’s survival of the most extravagant. They live only for a few weeks and only for a single purpose—to mate. Mating occurs in ‘chorus’ trees. A chorus of trees is an intriguing image. I might think differently after living through an awakening of a great brood of cicadas.
Each species of cicada has a unique song. Some species sound like Edison electrocuting an elephant to demonstrate the evils of alternating current, others like first contact recorded by the SETI network.
The last emergence of the Great Eastern Brood in Tennessee was 2004. The 17-year reawakening is expected in 2024. It’s likely to coincide with the next total solar eclipse crossing the United States, Texas to Maine, in April, 2024. The experience of a great brood of periodic cicadas strumming the trees like a bull fiddle while the sun turns black as death might be too apocalyptic for my taste.
Jerry Garcia’s voice drifted from the New Yorker’s truck.
Cold iron shackles, ball and chain
Listen to the whistle of the evenin’ train
You know you bound to wind up dead
If you don’t get back to Tennessee Jed
There were no competing radios playing country music or even rock and roll. It seemed there was a silent consensus. The Grateful Dead was the proper soundtrack for a solar eclipse.
Drink all day and rock all night
The law come to get you if you don’t walk right
Got a letter this morning, baby all it read
You better head back to Tennessee Jed
The Virginians came back from the vineyard and shared a bottle of Hiwassee, a white wine made from a red grape. The tasting notes for Muscadine wines suggest they’re best drunk young. You could hardly find a younger bottle than the one we drank.
It’s an acquired taste, I’m told, a taste I haven’t yet acquired.
I run into Charlie Fog
Blacked my eye and he kicked my dog
My doggie turned to me and he said
Let’s head back to Tennessee Jed
The high notes of Garcia’s guitar climbed toward a dimming sun, entwined like a Muscadine vine with the rhythmic strumming of the cicadas.
Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be
Baby won’t you carry me back to Tennessee
We drank the last of the Hiwassee and opened another. The Virginians seemed keen on reducing the number of bottles they carried home.
The heat of the sun pressed down on the field like a weight. It beat down the grass and bent the shoulders of anyone without shade. Deciduous trees cast crescents of light among the shadows on the tarmac, leaves focusing the eclipsed sunlight like pinhole cameras.
As the moon’s shadow progressed across the sun, the day cooled slightly but the light didn’t dim. You couldn’t tell the difference in the daylight unless you looked at the sun through dark glasses. But when the last of the sun fell beneath the moon’s shadow, the world was transformed.
Anne Dillard wrote in her essay Total Eclipse, “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.” You can remain largely insensitive to a partial eclipse but you can’t ignore the full monty.
The life of the sun’s light is deeply embedded in our language and ourselves. Its corollary—darkness as death—is an equally unexamined truth. We were gathered in the open field with the Grateful Dead to celebrate an old ritual, standing witness to the death and rebirth of the sun, same as the druids among their standing stones or the Aztec on their bloody temples. It’s a ritual older than civilization, older than husbandry or cultivated wheat or religion, perhaps older than language. It wasn’t always anticipated. For millennia it was an unexpected ritual that overtook us on the savannah or hunting in the forest but always it was the direct experience of god when god was still recognized as sun, moon and earth. Always it was a metaphor for death and rebirth and the vague promise that we also might be reborn.
Science has disabused us of religious metaphors and celestial mechanics offers us no hope of immortality. Even the sun and the earth will die in the cold grip of entropy. But science has failed to steal from us, like a cat steals an infant’s breath, the sense of wonder we feel when the sun goes dark mid-day and the earth falls silent and birds return to their roosts and predators wake from hungry sleep. It’s a moment of such exception, a special dispensation from the normal, that the experience breaches our hardened defenses, our practiced disdain, and reaches some place inside ourselves where the numinous still lurks like some hibernating beast in a darkened cave. It doesn’t matter what you believe or what you don’t; the black sun is a visceral experience.