Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Following the Moon

            In the first shot of the moon I took this month, our celestial sibling is very, very small. You would not know it's there unless you were the person who saw it in the clear blue autumn sky when you pressed the button. We think of seeing the moon after dark, so it seems rare to us to find a crescent moon in the sky at this time. The waxing (i.e. getting larger) crescent moon, especially in its first days, is the very, very small slice of moon.

            According to a number of cultures it's good luck to see the moon on the very day of a new cycle. The weather must be clear, so maybe that's part of it. In cultures where people lived or spent a great deal of their time out of doors, watching the sky was like keeping up with the news. If you didn't follow the day to day shape of the sky you were not very aware. You might be regarded as out of touch. If you were an observant person, in tune with your environment, who knew where the moon was for its usefulness as both reference in space and time, you had the makings of a good hunter and were likely to be a valuable member of the tribe. You were the kind of person who knew what time of day it was and what time of the month (the date as we would say) because you knew exactly where to look for the moon. This also made it more likely that you would pay your bills on time.

            We don't use the night sky as a clock or a calendar the same way our ancestors did. Urban light pollution blinds us. Weather in a temperate, four-season climate posts other challenges. We can have a rainy period or cloudy week and lose track entirely of the phase of the moon. We can't remember when we've last seen it. Then the sky clears one night, the moon pops out, and we say, 'Wow that big. Amazing, look at that. When did the moon get so big? It's almost full.'

            Actually, of course, the moon is 'moving,' waxing and waning, at the same rate as always. We may be "all over the place," the moon is always in the right place. That is to say, it "appears" to us where it does according to the unbending and ironclad laws of celestial mechanics. Which remind me to explain at some other time.

            As best as I can remember, the motions of the moon can best be explained by a couple of oranges and a flashlight. Though what the oranges have to do with the moon I'm sure I don't know, since the leading theory of its nature traditionally inclined toward green cheese.

            Still, some of us, even in rainy, cloudy, changeable places with shopping centers, superhighways, tall buildings and airports swallowing huge hunks of the night, still like to know, and keep track of, where the moon is. In an informal, casual, approximate sort of way. If asked, we wave at some quadrant of the sky and say 'I think the moon is over there somewhere.' Clouds may be blocking our view. Or a building, or a rise in the land. Or it might be that the moon is already too low in the sky to appear over the lines of houses always separating one's vantage from the horizon. Or it may not have risen yet, or already set. So even though the moon is not visible right now in whatever phase may prove to be the current one, it may very well be 'over there somewhere.' It's just that we can't see it.

            Still, we try.

            When I next took the moon's photo earlier this month, just a few days beyond my first effort, it was already considerably more substantial. Particularly in those first few days the moon is like an infant gaining a great deal of mass and weight and changing a lot in its first year of life. Our newborn moon.
            Last month, or maybe the month before, or maybe both (it's hard to keep track these days even when we try), we made a point of taking our exercise walks along the shoreline in Quincy and timing them to the rising of the full moon over the water. Or, actually, over a hunk of peninsula like an arm stretched out into Boston Harbor. So, actually, it was rising over mostly water, and leaving a brilliant reflection when the sky was clear on the flat bay water between it and us. Those were very fine moon sightings.

            Since then, things have happened. It's gotten unaccountably dark a lot earlier -- moving the clocks had something to do with that. The moon is keeping the same time, it's just that we've changed ours. It's also gotten a lot colder; we'll blame the sun for that.

            But I can't wait, even if we don't walk along the shore very much this month, for the moon to get big and full, and then to see if I can guess when it will rise over Quincy Bay and we can see its reflection on the water. I know this will happen.

            Just don't ask me when.