Open Road

A Cosmic Alignment

An eclipse chaser sees
the light in totality

Under a hale blue November sky pebbled with clouds—one of us steering by sight, the other by scent—we wend our way along narrow deer trails through knee-high grass, stepping around prickly pear cacti and brittle fallen tree branches covered in lichen, across dry rocky earth fringed on every side by cedar brakes. No matter that her eager nose pulls me into bramble that nicks my arms, pilfers my hat, and pelts me with waxy blue juniper berries; my eyes are as happy as her nose to take it all in. That setter nose cannot be trusted. At any moment, a new scent might trigger a cascade of chemicals to course through her lean bird dog frame and project her into the land. That way into the creekbed. That way onto the limestone bluffs. This way through the field. So, I keep Piper on a leash—a long retractable one.

Across a clearing is a form I can’t recognize at 30 feet away. Piper and I halt. A tiny thing. I approach it and kneel as Piper drifts about me on a slack leash. Spindly, yet somehow robust for holding its own at the feet of the rugged and relentless Ashe junipers that dominate Central Texas, the orchid shows off its dozen and a half white flowers, one stacked above the other along its narrow stem. It is the first wild orchid I’ve seen in the U.S., and the smallest I’ve seen anywhere. The plant is no more than 7 inches tall, each of its flowers less than half an inch in circumference. But it radiates a powerful fragrance. It is my nose to the ground this time.

I confess an unremitting appetite for beauty in my life. My meetings with it function as units of measurement marking the passage of time. These pulses, like the hands of a clock, exist in two sizes. There are the momentous events, or colossal specimens of beauty, that halt your breath and punctuate a lifetime: the love affairs, the births, the Annapurnas, the Sistine Chapels. The massive scale of these produces humility and wonder. The other are the small, random brushes with beauty—soft beats that carry the day. These are not rarities; we’re surrounded by them. Neither are they homogeneous. The small beauties have singular fingerprints and come in myriad forms: a tender word, the field of color in a painting, a passage in a book, light across a cushion on a winter’s afternoon. These instances share an evanescent quality. We relish them in the moment, then like an exhalation, release them. Yet that moment can feel expansive, as our attention is captured, our awareness stilled. These small beats sustain us.

It may be my father’s influence. As a child, I followed him around from task to task in the garden, where he instilled in me a love for the small things. Quiet by nature and attuned to the minor creatures and the fleeting moments, he would stop in the midst of yard work to admire a birdsong or move an insect out of the path of his lawn mower. Holding a praying mantis or a caterpillar in his palm, he delighted in the creature’s minute movements, its dear personality. He worked tirelessly seven days a week at work and home but made space on a busy Saturday to have his tea beneath his grape arbor. There he could admire not just the quantity but also the color and form of the fruit he’d grown. Then it was back to work, until the next small thing captured his attention.

I’ve lived in Texas for nearly 10 years, and I’ve witnessed beauty in innumerable forms. Most recently, my time here coincided with that most extraordinary phenomenon of natural wonder: the total solar eclipse. Though solar eclipses are not uncommon—the sun is eclipsed by the moon about twice a year—the moon’s narrow 170-mile-wide shadow rarely falls across a populated landmass. This past year, Texas lay in the shadow path of both an annular eclipse, when the moon, at its furthest from the earth in its elliptical orbit, is unable to cover the entire disk of the sun and leaves a “ring of fire” in the sky; and a total eclipse, when the moon, at its closest distance to the earth, gives us totality, covering the solar disk completely, briefly turning day into night.

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My first encounter with a solar eclipse is not in Texas, but Texas plays a role, nonetheless. I’ve always wanted to see a total eclipse of the sun, and the drive up to Missouri from our home in Denton in 2017 doesn’t seem very far to do so. After spending the night in Kansas City, my partner, Christian, and I rise early and head east to a state park that’s already sprinkled with people. The lawn fills as others arrive—chairs, blankets, and coolers in tow. Excitement laces the air and conversations crackle between the expectant spectators. We discover we’re surrounded by Texans who’ve traveled north as we have, some from locales neighboring Denton. Of course, I think, food, friendliness, and enthusiasm: These are Texans. But that jovial atmosphere turns to apprehension an hour before the event, when the sky to the west introduces clouds and we all look from our weather apps to the sky to one another. For me, anxiety breeds restlessness, and as light rain begins to fall, I persuade Christian to leave.

In the car, I keep an eye on the sky with the eclipse’s path in mind. I navigate as Christian drives southeasterly, trying to outpace the advancing rain clouds. We reach the edge of the cloud cover and pull over. There on the side of the highway, in rural Missouri, we turn our protected eyes toward the sun, now occupying a blue sky. The sounds of nature dampen, a multiplicity of colors is reduced to an eerie green. The hum of the highway, as more cars pull over, is silenced. When the moon swallows the crescent sun, we shed our glasses. Day turns to night, stars emerge, and a sublimely luminous crown halts my breath and punctuates my life. I expected the spectacular; I experience the profound.

The event produces a transcendent blend of awe, reverence, and unease in me. I know the logistics and physics of the phenomenon, but I still feel something like terror. No wonder ancient societies imagined that celestial dragons, serpents, or wolves chased and devoured the sun. I feel small. I feel human. I feel love for our little blue planet in its elliptical orbit about a blazing sun within a spiral galaxy in a vast churning universe.

Our appreciation of beauty is a mysterious thing. Awe and love entwine so subtly yet powerfully that in that moment of perception, we fall in love. The tiny native orchid I’d come upon with my dog was not the only instance of beauty to charm me this past fall. An onrush of meetings with small beauties courted me into a love affair with the Hill Country.

A couple of brief trips to Austin during my time in Texas had not divulged the natural marvel of Central Texas to me. Then last fall, this 21st-century writer was given a 20th-century gift, bestowed by a Texan born in the late 19th century. J. Frank Dobie left an unequaled legacy of folklore in his extensive writing on Southwestern life and culture. Dobie also left a remarkable legacy to future Texas writers—grand gifts of time, silence, and solitude in the Hill Country. The Dobie Paisano Fellowship awards one writer four months at his Paisano Ranch, a place Dobie used as a writing retreat and shared with fellow writers during his lifetime.

I receive the fellowship in 2023 and arrive at Paisano with Piper in late summer to begin work on my second novel. This period is a gift of slow time, natural silence, sustained solitude. My work is fueled by the wondrous Hill Country, a rugged, buckled, rolling land of hills, bluffs, and creeks that is home to a marvelous confluence of plant, animal, and fungal species. The battling climates of east and west, north and south, merge to impress a variety of pressures on the terrain and its organisms. Within me, it produces unexpected convergences of thought and kindles latent feelings. Though the landscape plays no role in my writing, it fills my dreams. These regular brushes with beauty synchronize me with my own clock.

I take walks with Piper daily, sometimes several a day. At every turn, another remarkable occurrence: a tenacious dung beetle, a raucous murder of crows, the rustle of an armadillo waking from its 16-hour slumber, wind clapping through the live oak canopy, whispers spreading among the honey mesquite, the evening call of coyotes, an acquiescing night sky (how seldom I see the stars these days!), the eyes of deer locking into mine in the early morning hours, the sundry songs of birds. The kaleidoscope of nature on the Edwards Plateau is dizzying.

The second eclipse I experience occurs during my time at Paisano. For the Oct. 14 annular eclipse, we drive a mere two hours from Austin to Bandera for a prime view. While it doesn’t equal the magnificence of the total eclipse we’d seen before, its beauty is surpassed by what happens on the ground. Somehow, in our excitement to see the eclipse, and with our focus on the infrequent but roving clouds in the sky, we neglect to keep an eye on the gas tank. Several miles outside of Bandera, on a small rural road, our car runs out of gas. We drift off the road and stop along the fence of a large ranch. There is no cellular signal, and few cars pass as the moon readies to make first contact with the sun. We accept our circumstances and prepare ourselves for the event.

But Texas has different plans for us. A series of gallant strangers show up to help and, like the stages of an annular eclipse, make first, second, third, and fourth contact. Minutes after our car stops, park rangers from the nearby Hill Country State Natural Area pull up in their truck. We are sure they are going to ask us to move along. And they do, but out of kindness; they want to guide us to a better viewing spot. Instead, they give Christian a ride closer to town to get a signal. I stay with the car and watch as a cluster of clouds, in a relatively clear sky, parks itself above me. Regularly switching between eyeglasses and eclipse glasses, I train my sight back and forth from the quiet road to the moon touching shoulders with the sun. When a police car, lights on, pulls up behind me a half-hour later, I am sure the rancher has called them, and I’ll be asked to leave. But out steps Christian and the policeman from each side of the car, chatting happily. (Geico suggested he call 911 as they have no providers in the area.) As we talk, the policeman waves down a state trooper driving past, thinking he might have a gas canister. The trooper does not, but he offers Christian a ride to Bandera.

As the moon covers more of the sun, the wind dies down; the trees stand still; and the tall grasses stop rasping, their seedheads softly humming. The light dims, the air cools, and I put on my sweater. Restless birds continue their chorus until the moon melds with the sun to produce a magnificent golden ring that glows softly behind the clouds. Is it the moon eclipsing the sun, or a nine-banded armadillo in deep slumber dreamily devouring a snapping turtle egg? Then the birds resume their chirping and are joined by crickets and by the wind. I imagine the three orbs—earth, moon, and sun—in alignment. But I have no idea where Christian is.

About 20 minutes past annularity, a large pickup truck pulls in behind our car. It’s the rancher, I think, and he wants me off his land. But, once again, Christian steps out of the passenger side of the car, deep in conversation with the young man exiting the driver’s side. Introductions and jokes are made, hands shaken. A 5-gallon canister of gas is produced from the back of the pickup. A gallon—a gallon is all we need to get to Bandera, we assure him. But he won’t stop short of emptying the entire 5 gallons into our tank, and he refuses payment. While he pours, we chat, exchanging the large and small strokes of our lives, as well as phone numbers. He invites us to stay at his house, anytime. Just like that, in a matter of minutes, a rescue, a genuine exchange, and a sincere invitation—qualities natural to the character of this man. All because this man, a customer, had simply heard Christian asking the clerk at the local Tractor Supply which aisle held the gas canisters. The young man, who moments earlier filled up his canister for his own use, not only offers it to Christian, without hesitation, but drives him 20 minutes off the highway to our car. When they walk out of the store, annularity has begun, and the three of them—the state trooper, the young man, and Christian—join numerous others taking in the sight from the parking lot of the Tractor Supply.

On this day, the pageant in the sky cannot compete with the incredible exhibition of humanity on the ground: a chain of people, during a remarkable astronomical event, take their eyes from the sky to help a stranger without hesitation, with sincerity and humor.

The Great North American Eclipse of this past spring likewise leaves me awestruck, but in a wholly unexpected way. The director of the Dobie Paisano Fellowship graciously allows me, Christian, Piper, and our puppy, Linus, to return to the ranch for the April 8 occasion. Once again, clouds threaten to obscure the scene. For days, the forecast calls for an overcast sky, but we remain hopeful, even though dense clouds gather and shift all morning. We leave our phones inside the old ranch house and place ourselves out front on the big lawn, where our two bird dogs busy themselves chewing on twigs and toys and chasing birds and butterflies. We are grateful the constant movement of the clouds allows for brief glimpses of the advancing eclipse. About a half-hour before totality, the low clouds disperse in that part of the sky and I feel relief, assured the dimming and cooling I sense are due to the moon’s shadow and not the density of the cloud coverage.

Moments before peak eclipse, the clouds part to reveal a large area of clear sky just where the sun and moon are putting on their show. And then, totality. That crown of light. The absolute beauty of the thing. Before I can take it in, something I’ve held in and pushed deep down escapes: a pain so excruciating it brings me to my knees and, suddenly, I am on my back, convulsing with sobs. With absolute grief. Two months prior, I lost my father. He was active and healthy for his 86 years. Then, a piece of plaque that silently sequestered in his carotid artery broke free and darkened our lives.

The ocean of grief I’ve held in behind a film of denial since his death is so great, my mind and heart cannot face it. But my body does. During these two months, grinding anxiety chases me from one thought or action to another. A debilitating migraine, lasting two weeks, keeps me in the dark, like a vampire, nauseous at the sight of food, unable to step outside. Painting my nails one afternoon, I notice a horizontal ridge across the center of my thumbnail. Days later, I realize I have these ridges across every single fingernail in the same spot. Beau’s lines, I learn. Caused by trauma to the nail, by sudden poor health, or by stress and grief. A nail takes three to five months to grow. These marks are halfway up my fingernails. They coincide exactly with the week my father was on life support in the hospital. My migraine is followed by a cold, followed by a sinus infection, as my body surrenders to the grief.

But this cosmic alignment pierces my denial. Here is the moon eclipsing my father, erasing him from my sky. Everything—the birds, the crickets, the trees, the wind, the clouds, my partner, our dogs, all knowledge, all control—everything but my grief disappears. I am utterly alone, pinned to the earth, my eyes trained on the terrible glowing crown in the sky, feeling the vast emptiness above me, comprehending only the great gulf between myself in the present and my dad in the past. Were the earth not against my back, not there to stop me, I feel I should be catapulted backward into that vast cold space. Those three minutes, like a thousand years of devastation, force me to cry as I’ve never cried before, with my whole body, my entire being, with all existence distilled. Then the moon nods, the sun’s glare breaks free. I lay there for a long time, sobbing. Soon, the sun’s light is subdued again by clouds that fill the sky and keep it covered for the remainder of the afternoon.

A mysterious thing, our need for beauty. There are the small beauties and the colossal ones, the orchids and the birdsongs, the total eclipses and my father.

Fowzia Karimi’s Open Road essay “An Open Palm” appeared in the May 2022 issue.

From the July/August 2024 issue

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