The Moon with Venus, as observed in New Mexico, Dec. 2019 (Photo by the author)
Back in February, on the day I knew the full moon would be rising, I sat down outside facing east, a few minutes before sunset, to watch the show. Here in southwestern New Mexico, the afternoon had been sunny and dry with a high in the low 70s, so the temperature, though cooling down, was still very pleasant.
I was in a shallow valley, and though the sunset on me when it dipped below the low ridge to my west, it was still in the sky for most of the landscape in my view. As I watched, the shadow of the ridge behind me moved out across the irrigated pastures and crept up to the bottom of the hills around the rim of the valley. As it climbed the slopes, the colors of the peaks deepened to amber and then rose. Their rounded tops stood out in the last light like islands before slowly being swallowed up.
I sat staring, spellbound by the beauty. Just at the moment when I guessed that the sun was fully set behind the western horizon, a bright light stabbed out in the crook between two of the peaks. My first impression was of sunlight reflecting off a rooftop but I’ve gazed upon those peaks innumerable times and I knew there were no structures up there, in the national forest.
But the emanation grew brighter, and I caught my breath as I realized with a start that I was watching was the moon rising. Within a moment, what had been a point showed the curve of a disk, and within another moment, it was clearly round. The sky and the hills, which had been steadily darkening with the sinking of the sun, seemed in this moment to grow brighter. I don’t remember that effect from before, but that doesn’t mean I’d never seen it—just that I hadn’t noticed it.
I sat in wonder as the moon rose from behind the peaks and then started climbing into the sky. For several more minutes, a radiance seemed to grow on the landscape. At last, with the sun having departed quite sometime before, dimness resumed its previous deepening. But even so, the hills, the pasture, and the yard where I sat were all bathed in luminescence. It was night, but I wouldn’t describe it as dark.
Experiencing the brilliance of the sun giving way to glow the moon without interference from artificial light is a rare experience for most human beings on the face of the earth these days, given that the majority of the population is now urban. Some humans will never have such an experience, unless a day comes when all the lights go out. In the context of the human experience—which goes back at least 200,000 years as Homo sapiens, and longer still as other species whose forms we would recognize as “us”—this age of alienation from the sun and the moon is an extremely recent phenomenon, not really having commenced until electric bulbs became common.
What does our culture—a techno-industrial society in the Abrahamic religious tradition—have to say to us about the moon? Almost nothing. We have a nursery rhyme about a musically-inclined feline and a bovine with impressive leaping abilities. We have rumors that people act more violent during a full moon but is that just an urban myth? (Science says it is, for what it’s worth.) We use the word “lunatic” (from “luna,” Latin for “moon”) to describe insanity, but more on that later. Basically, and I would say to our detriment, we have reduced the moon to a symbol or cartoon, as if it literally were made of paper, in a sky of canvas over a sea of cardboard.
But the moon is a real thing and it’s important. Its cycles and many of their effects are well-known. At one point in human history, everyone was in tune with its rhythm because we all lived outside and were directly, personally affected, as were the other life forms around us with whom we communed.
The studies of Astrology and Astronomy were once one and the same. People who observed and recorded the movements of the heavenly bodies also described apparent correlations between these movements and the actions and attributes of earthly bodies. In the splitting of this discipline into two, both pursuits lost something.
I lived on the West Coast for nearly two decades and so I met quite a number of astrologically minded people but too few had a practical knowledge of the night skies. They knew the Moon was in Cancer because that’s what their charts told them, but lacked the training to figure it out through their own observations. As for those individuals of more skeptical bent, who attempt to sever the Universe of its intrinsic interconnectedness, I must ask why they insist on manufacturing cold loneliness when the raw materials of life are so much better suited to warm conviviality? Too often, the “rationalists” breed estrangement, which is so dangerous in a time when we need to reknit our relationships to the rest of creation.
Just as the sun rises and sets, so too does the moon, but with the added feature of changing shape. I’m not a rocket scientist, and I haven’t been laying out stones, but because I’ve been living in rural areas for a few years now, I am generally aware of what phase the moon is in, and could tell you off the top of my head within a couple days margin of error if you asked. I could reduce that margin significantly if I chose to focus on it.
Living in the city or the suburbs, with all the light pollution, one is not usually too aware of the moon. In areas of taller buildings, you might barely ever see it even if you look up regularly.
The countryside is a totally different story. In the absence of other light, the prominence of the moon, especially in the three or four nights around the full, is spectacular. I’ve come to greatly enjoy those times, when I can walk around in open areas outside with virtually as much ease as during the day. The absence of color is certainly noticeable, but the contrast is high.
I was aged 41 when I first remember seeing moonshadows. Growing up in the ’70s I had heard the Cat Stevens song “Moonshadow” on the radio an uncountable number of times, but until I experienced them myself I had assumed, I guess, that it was just a fanciful term. But that spring, in the wide-open agricultural zone of the Willamette Valley south of Portland, I finally witnessed them, as plain as day (lol). The shapes on the ground clearly showed me, my friends, and the nearby barn, with outlines so crisp they might have been cut from dark paper. It’s not like I’d never been camping before, or outside at night in a rural area, but for some reason I just hadn’t consciously noted the phenomena previously. I was delighted, if perhaps also a little disconcerted at myself.
Such a thing—not knowing moon shadows are a thing—would’ve been impossible in our collective past. From the earliest age, I would have experienced the cycles of more and less prominent moon shadows and their causes and effects sure as I would have noticed clear and cloudy days. I would have known under which circumstances I was more likely to hear an owl hoot or coyote howl or to catch a fish. As a child, the correlation between disc shape and the timing of its travel would have been utterly familiar.
Civilization has been constructed through the suppression of our preternatural ecological consciousness, both individual and collective. For all of us born into its tethers, our senses are blunted, not sharpened; our awarenesses dulled, not deepened. The dominant paradigm is based on a fatuous claim of “dominion,” with no basis in reality. I’d call it a Bronze Age fairy tale, but as a narrative that revels so much in cruelty, the idea lacks the charm of that form.
When we put plow to earth, we ripped open a wound that has grown ever wider in the millennia since. The tighter our grip on land has become, the more life we have strangled. Now we are at a point where our burning and poisoning of the planet has put into motion feedbacks that threaten us with extinction. It’s a big scene, and not a happy one. Worst of all, it was not only predictable but actually predicted. Some among us have always been warning us, from the very beginning, that our delusion of separation from nature could prove deadly.
And here we are, with polar ice caps melting, oceans full of plastic, soil tainted with poison, an increasingly toxic atmosphere, and wildlife in a death spiral.
Would it be different if we all still knew moon shadows? Undoubtedly. To be in touch with just that one cycle is to be inextricably connected to so many more. In that world of perception, the major events over the course of a year aren’t blockbusters or new products or elections but the first wildflower to bloom in the spring, and the seasonal return of a migrating species, and the last tree to bear fruit in the autumn. These are actual things. For all of our manufacturing of both objects and of ideas, the world we have made for ourselves is virtual, and has been since long before the computer age. The Bard described it well: “A tale told by idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” That is indeed life, when life is defined as the world of human affairs and the ego. Our hubris is proving deadly.
The English word “lunatic” has long been an insult (though its Latin root, lunaticus for “moon-struck,” if meant as a slight, is less so than the contemporary usage). Like the word “heathen”—which designated residents of “the heath,” uncultivated land where plants such as “heather” grew—the word “lunatic” is a slur in part because it implies nature-loving/worshipping pagans, and the members of the ruling class were/are adamant adherents of Christendom, at least in word. So, with “lunatic,” we stumble across an old conflict and some truly ugly behavior by the cross-bearing dominionists.
But paying heed to the “luna”—the moon—and even being affected by it, is not a sign of disease or insanity. Rather, it’s perfectly normal for members of our species, and of many others. With our use of “lunatic” as a term of revilement, we are saying more about ourselves and our own disaffection than about our supposed target. I would go so far as to declare that what we need is more lunatics. After all: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” [Jiddu Krishnamurti].
If there is any hope for human life, it lies in the possibility that some will survive the collapse of civilization, and live once more in a world where shadows are cast only by lights in the sky, and where the Moon once more takes its rightful place illuminating not only the nocturnal landscape but also our own internal ones.