Night Watch, by Rachel Kushner

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When I was a kid, we played a game: would you rather be given eternal happiness or told the secrets of the universe? I always chose secrets.

In Eugene, Oregon, where I lived until age ten, you could see the Milky Way at night, a big glittering highway of stars. Now most people in the United States and Europe can’t see the Milky Way at all. Maybe kids today will form their celestial musings from the Webb telescope and its surreal imagery of early star life. Pondering the universe is part of childhood. It’s as if kids are on duty, wondering about UFOs and black holes and where the universe ends and what the hell is outside of it, while adults cease their shift on night watch. They leave it to the experts and the kooks.

In 1975, some people passed through Eugene announcing that anyone who wanted to know if there was a “real, physical level in space beyond the Earth’s confines”—and who wouldn’t?—should come to a meeting in the tiny town of Waldport, on the coast northwest of Eugene. Signs posted up around town read ufos: why they are here. who they have come for. when they will leave. We didn’t go, but two hundred other people did. The meeting took place at the Pat Boone Inn. It was hosted by a mysterious pair who called themselves Bo and Peep. Some thirty people were so thunderstruck by whatever they heard that afternoon that they abandoned their jobs and families and lives, gave up everything to join Bo and Peep, whose real names were Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, and who built from that early membership drive in Waldport a movement of star worship called Heaven’s Gate. Applewhite had served time for stealing a Mercury Comet in 1973. He and the rest of the group tried to catch a ride on a real comet, Hale–Bopp, in 1997, as it passed near Earth on its four-thousand-year orbit of the sun.

My family resisted Waldport, but four years later we drove out to eastern Oregon to see a full solar eclipse. We stayed with a family friend and her kids, who were living on Warm Springs Indian Reservation. The morning of the eclipse, we got up early to drive out to a plateau in the desert that was scattered with other eclipse watchers, just north of Madras. People were setting up telescopes and complicated equipment that used mirrors to reflect the image of the sun and the moon’s progress over its surface. My mother had doubled over lengths of blank negative film and framed them in card stock. (Now you can buy disposable eclipse glasses everywhere, but in 1979 you could not, so we improvised.) My brother and I, thirteen and ten, walked around, looking up at the sun with our homemade viewfinders. People regarded us with pity, as if we were going to burn our retinas and go blind. When the moon moved almost completely over the sun, this vast flat desert dotted with little groups of people fell into a strange twilight, and then it was fully dark.

And yet still I could see. In this strange version of dark, every detail of the desert—I remember looking at the sand—was visible. A cool white glow flaring out from around the edges of the black moon, some trace remnant of the sun, was creating an odd new under-light. This light was from the corona, the outermost edge of the sun, which apparently burns at a different temperature than the rest of it. I had never seen light like this. I had never seen dark like this. The temperature dropped dramatically. The desert was very quiet. People spoke in whispers during the minute-and-a-half interim of the total eclipse. I can recall that minute and a half now as if it just happened, whereas I cannot recall most of the minutes of my life, of yesterday, of last week, of a year ago or ten years ago.

While staying in the southern Corrèze in France this summer, I kept announcing the coming full moon to friends. Finally one of them said, in his thick accent, “Why do you keep mentioning this full moon? Who gives a shit!” I had no response. Is my interest in the moon some dormant atavism from a more primitive era of human life? Is the moon some fad I’m into? The moon is not a fad, I reassured myself. It just is.

The month before, we were scheduled to get a strawberry supermoon. I pictured a big glowing moon floating in pink champagne. Nick Drake’s estate holders licensed “Pink Moon” for a Volkswagen commercial. This would be a pink moon owned by none. A pink moon shared by all, at least all who didn’t have cloud cover on the night of its debut. I was in Los Angeles, and we had clear skies as evening set in, just a touch of smog like sheer pantyhose stretched over the skyline. At dusk, we went out to have a look.

A great horned owl that lives in a tree on our block hooted softly, giving the air a rippling, liquid quality. An ambulance caterwauled down Sunset Boulevard, which runs parallel one block below. The coyotes down the alley howled in response. I was in slippers and nightgown. The coyotes were in leather jackets—I mean spiritually—but not known to actually attack. Rising up from the southeast, between the Los Angeles Water and Power building and our city jail complex, was a big barefaced moon. It wasn’t strawberry-pink. It wasn’t pink at all. I tried to see it as pink. Maybe moon-pink is like one of those shades of decorator paint, I thought; they’re all white, white after white, but there’s a million of them. Daquiri Ice. French Vanilla. Strawberry Moon. It turns out the reference to strawberries was about what was coming to harvest, seasonally, and not about the moon itself. This hadn’t occurred to me, but I live three blocks from the 101 freeway and do not grow any food.

The moon, generally speaking, is solid. Literally, too: it has an iron-rich core, despite the bestseller claiming it’s hollow and built by aliens or by future earthlings who traveled back in time to install it. The moon is “comely,” to dust off a defunct term. It’s reliable, with accurate forecasts of position and shape.

Two years ago, we had a full moon on Halloween (apparently everyone did, since my moon isn’t “local”). We went up to our favorite reservoir to watch it rise. We ducked under the signs warning that trespassing is strictly forbidden and took a trail down toward the waterline. This reservoir is a large crater with steep sides. It is half-filled with water, whose surface was turning silver when we arrived, at dusk. The giant concrete ramp on one side glowed yellow, absorbing the final, low-angle rays of the sun. The ramp is left over from when the U.S. Navy tested torpedoes here. The artist Robert Smithson would have appreciated this place as natural beauty enhanced by the remnants of industrial destruction. Once, a torpedo was launched incorrectly and instead of plunging down into the depths of the water, it skidded over the surface at six hundred miles an hour, shot up the other side of the crater, and landed in the scrubby hillside over yonder.

We stepped sideways like crabs over the shores of crumbly slag to reach a perch of soft wild grass that was out of view of the reservoir’s little command station. The moon announced itself in a spreading brightness like the first ascending notes and kettle drum of Richard Strauss’s “Zarathustra.” As it rose to symphonic fullness—huge, German Romantic, yellow as a beach agate—we heard the squeal of brakes on the road that snaked through the canyon above us. (People race up and down it in souped-up Hondas. There are wrecks. Then you hear the sirens. It’s one road in, one road out.)

By the time we left, the moon was high above the reservoir’s jagged bowl. The trail out was dark. As we got to the top, two glowing orange eyes stared down at us. Then two more, and two more. There were numerous animals with magic eyes, shining at us. The orange eyes started moving upward, from the ground into the branches of the shrubbery, and we figured out they were birds. Later someone told me they were nightjars, and that this sighting was rare. I credit the moon.

My favorite part of the Lars von Trier film Melancholia, about rich people in a country house facing the end of the world, is when they hold up this crude instrument—a twisted loop of wire that looks like a coat hanger unbent to clean a crack pipe—that allows them to gauge whether total destruction is nigh. If the rogue planet “Melancholia” is getting closer to Earth, it will exceed the diameter of the little wire loop. Kiefer Sutherland’s character, a kind of modern Homais, a positivist boob with his fancy Newtonian telescope, is confident that scientific calculations predicting that Earth won’t be obliterated are definitely correct. He’s wrong. His sister-in-law, played by Kirsten Dunst, moon-bathes nude in the light of the rogue planet. She’s a depressed accelerationist, ready for the end.

The people in this film only look up because of an extraordinary circumstance (the first sign of which is that their butler doesn’t show up for work). It’s easy to laugh at them, but most of us are like that. We only look up on occasion, or we read on the internet about what we’d see if we did look up. But for most of human history, people have not only looked up but regarded their fate as written in the sky. In her book The Human Cosmos, the science journalist Jo Marchant suggests that the images in the caves of Lascaux, made tens of thousands of years ago, are depictions of celestial constellations rather than merely scenes of terrestrial hunting. Perhaps the curves of the cave ceilings and walls were meant to mimic the perceived curve of the night sky, the dome of stars up above. If divination of many kinds can be found in ancient cultures, signs in the sky are special because they apply to everyone. A fate read in the sky is a common fate. We’ve let go of that. Monotheism, science, and light pollution might be the three main wedges dividing us from the universe, but no demon has us in a headlock. We can look up when we want.

In 2017, there was another solar eclipse in the United States, and, incredibly, its path of totality passed over the same exact place I’d seen the eclipse in 1979. My family made plans to travel back to the area. What are the chances that the only two total solar eclipses to be seen from the United States in fifty years, one whose path looped down from the Gulf of Alaska and swept up toward Canada, and the other whose path traced the entire country from northwest to southeast, would cross in an X over the desert of eastern Oregon?

We chose Fossil, just east of Madras, because it was in the path of totality but would not be crowded like Madras, where people were converging from all over the world.

Eastern Oregon is sparsely populated desert ranch country. Men on Gator four-wheelers motored around town with beer koozies. That evening, a visiting astronomer gave a lecture at the local high school, from which, by coincidence, he’d graduated. I walked the halls, looking at photos of students past. In the Sixties, there were thirty or forty students in each graduating class. By the 2010s, just a handful. In 2015, there were two. Last year, there was one student, who didn’t graduate, resulting in a dropout rate of 100 percent.

The next morning was the big event. We walked up a hill to watch the sun get eaten, the sky grow dark. This took place. But it is not as vivid for me as that first eclipse so long ago. I had already experienced a full solar eclipse, a phenomenon I would never understand if it were merely explained to me.

After the eclipse, my friend James Benning, a filmmaker, showed up in Fossil, having just filmed the moon’s shadow as it hurtled over the landscape near Madras. We compared our experiences and wandered around. A teenage cowboy walking his horse through town asked me if I wanted to ride it. Unsettled by the sudden offer, I said no. “Are you sure?” he asked, and sauntered away. We looked at the old courthouse, whose rear side featured two barred windows: twin jail cells that faced cow pasture. We hollered up, imagined throwing sandwiches through the bars, but the cells were empty.

As the sky had darkened that morning, during the eclipse, cows began to low: they thought it was bedtime. I looked out and down toward Fossil. The streetlights had switched on by automatic sensor. The temperature plunged, and a wind came up. This wind felt like the cool of the universe, not the cool of the earth. There was a reverent hush among those watching the eclipse, but it was undercut by the sound of a chainsaw. Someone in town was cutting up a dead tree; he did not stop for the eclipse, which had made his hardscrabble town, population 422, in the least populous county in Oregon, an international destination. He sawed and sawed. “I appreciate him,” my son said. “He’s steadfast.”

In my own way, I am also steadfast. While some travel the world to witness full solar eclipses, I go exclusively to a fifty-mile stretch of eastern Oregon.

Which means I’ve already seen my two, and I will not see any more. My allotment of eclipses is over and done, finished, just like my chance to ride that kid’s horse.


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