Splitting the Sun Gina Williams
In August of 1768, Captain James Cook set off from Europe on a journey commissioned by the Royal Navy to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. “We took our leave of Europe for heaven alone knows how long, perhaps for Ever,” he wrote. Captain Cook caught up with Venus in June of 1769 as her small, dark spot of a shadow split the sun. He recorded the two-day event in Tahiti after an eight-month voyage. Venus wouldn’t be seen slipping across the sun’s face again for more than a hundred years; the planet’s transits are visible from Earth every 120 years, in June or December, in pairs eight years apart. Attempts to record the transit in 1761 had failed.
Almost exactly two hundred years later, on a hot, August night, my father would observe the transit of my mother’s tears as she screamed from labor pains, and I was born, pulled from her womb with a medieval pair of metal forceps by a grimacing, thick-jawed Navy doctor. I was born six weeks early in the Whidbey Island Naval Base hospital, north of Seattle. My mother wasn’t allowed to breastfeed, or even hold me, for weeks—a hospital policy as archaic as those forceps. For many days, I knew only the false warmth of a heated incubator, sugar water feedings, and the cold comfort of round-faced nurses who delivered sponge baths and diaper changes. “That rough moon landing made you tough, made you a fighter,” my dad would later say, as he made shadow wolves howl and shadow rabbits hop on my bedroom wall at night. Did it? Am I?
Twenty-six years after that, on another warm, summer night, the goddess of love would split my heart as I rode on the back of a motorcycle with my boyfriend, the future father of my children. As we rumbled across a freeway bridge over the Columbia River from Oregon back to Washington State, the overhead lights on poles high above the roadway sent our shadows flying ahead of us. Our starkly outlined silhouettes whipped by in front of us again and again until we reached the other side, turned the corner, and descended into darkness. You could straddle a cycle right now, wait until sunset, and experience those leaping shadows on that same bridge. It might take your breath away. It might do nothing at all. But, for me, the surreal phenomena of watching ourselves repeatedly zoom away as our shadows were ripped by momentum and optics from our booted heels, flying away together into the night, made me cry with an inexplicable feeling of loss and longing. Maybe I somehow knew, even then, long before trying to make anything “work,” that our fleeing shadows represented the impossible dreams that would leave us. Maybe I understood that shadows never lie, that shadow people never abandon one another, never pound their fists onto the kitchen counter in fits of marital rage, could never hurt a child.
The motorcycle was sold, eventually. It’s been a long time since I choked back tears on the back of a Honda, lifted that plastic facemask a crack to get a gulp of fresh air, just enough to stop myself from reaching out as my outlined existence raced by, from making a futile attempt to grab hold of a ghost. Thankfully, my shadow did return, if reluctantly, and I keep it close by now, most of the time. It occasionally slips toward the moonlit windowsill and hovers there while I lie dreaming, but it doesn’t get away for long. It makes just enough of a rustling noise, like fallen leaves blowing in the street to wake me. On those midnights, I sneak toward it stealthily and grab hold, keep it still while I stitch it, Peter Pan style, with a heavy steel needle and sturdy cotton thread, back onto my small, bare, twitching feet.
The word “photography” is derived from the Greek words for light and writing or drawing. To write with light is an attempt, I suppose, to net the soul of this life and the invisible fibers of our existence with shadows and illumination. Sometimes at night, I go for runs and walks alone in the city, looking for shadows to net with the camera obscura in my mind, indulging in the surreal, loosened world of lengthened light, double vision, and stretched reality. Chinese philosopher Mo Di knew of the camera obscura effect back in the fifth century B.C. He understood that light entering a pinhole could project an inverted image into a darkened room. He called it the “collecting place” and his “locked treasure room.” I can escape there, in that collecting place, hiding inside of my own umbra, my total eclipse, even when it’s nothing but the visual trick made by sodium lights dangling from poles in lieu of dark planets and blazing suns. Perhaps it is because my consciousness began in that shadowy realm that I enjoy retreating deeply inside of it now and then.
The mission of Cook’s dangerous and risky voyage to view that speck of a planet shadow against the sun was to measure the size of the solar system, a cosmic question as important then as black holes and quantum physics are today. As early as 1716, astronomer Edmund Halley understood that Venus held a clue to the size of the solar system because the start and stop times of the transit, when recorded from different points on earth, could be used to measure by way of parallax or scale.
In spite of Cook’s observations of Venus and the measurements made by others positioned across the globe in 1769, the exact size of the solar system still wasn’t known; the fuzziness of Venus’ atmosphere and the “black-drop effect,” which caused the edge of the planet to appear to smear against the sun, made precise measurements difficult. Place your thumb and index finger near one eye and pinch them together. Just before they touch, you’ll see the black-drop effect as a shadow bridge leaps between your fingers. It wasn’t until Venus returned in 1874 and 1882 that photographers were able to accurately measure the transit, and the size of the solar system was finally ascertained.
In 2004 and 2012, I observed the transits of Venus on my television set and computer screen as images gathered by high-powered telescopes were broadcast via satellite. The goddess planet of love and beauty won’t dot the sun again until 2125. I’ll be a particle of dust by then, a whisper, a wink, my ashes strewn across the desert by howling winds. Thinking about the great explorers like Cook and our own astronauts, I wonder what I’d do, what I’d risk, to seek and find answers among the shadows, from the shadows. Maybe I’m tough, willing to fight and endure for some things. But I’m not brave, am I? If given the chance to see a new world, would I walk that plank? What voyage am I on right now that may reveal itself with answered questions long after I’m gone, like Halley, Cook, and Mo Di?
Yesterday, on an early morning, late summer stroll, my shadow stretched out in front of me on the sidewalk. I punched at it, jabbed at myself, did a few high kicks. My short legs doubled into long and stately shadow limbs in the rising sun. My edges appeared gilded. My shadow torso stretched into willowy elegance. My shadow hair flipped into an instant perfect style in the breeze. Then, I turned sideways in the soft morning light and disappeared into myself. For a moment, I hovered there and didn’t really want to return.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Two.