3:37 AM …

… and the deeply cratered southern lunar highlands have slipped below the upper edge of the skylight in my room. The rectangle of bright light from the full February moon has been sliding up the covers of my bed and now moves onto my pillow and into my eyes, waking me.

I estimate that the slice of skylight I can see from the angle of my bed equals not quite two of the moon’s diameters. I decide to watch the bright beacon descend on its westward trajectory as long as I can keep my eyes open.  I manage the task, watching the moon crawl slowly down through the spidered tips of the trees in the back yard. I can actually see it move.  Which is thrilling.  By 4:45, nothing is left but a soft glow at the bottom of the frame emanating from the now-hidden moon. I am tempted to go downstairs to watch it continue its journey, but I know from that lower angle it will be lost in the tangle of trees and the houses on the street behind my house.  So I go back to sleep. DSC00585

I’ve always been confounded by the movement of the moon. It’s never in the same place night after night. I recently took a wonderful class at the Natural History Museum, All Things Moon, and learned a lot. The moon moves approximately its own diameter each hour against the background of the stars – or a little more than .5 degrees along its orbit around the earth. It takes about 27 1/3 days for the moon to complete an orbit while the earth keeps spinning/rotating. 360 degrees divided by 27.3 days = 13.2.  So the moon rises and sets 13.2 degrees to the west each day and moves .5 degrees against the stars each hour of the day/night.  There’s a reasonably clear explanation of it all here, but it still makes my head spin.

Does the moon stun you, as it does me?  As long as I can remember I have been fascinated with it. Some years ago I wrote a poem that tried to capture that stunned feeling and it was chosen in a contest that was part of a local effort to put poetry on city buses.  Here’s the bus card that was produced.  DSC00526

The artwork was done by then Kent State Design Studio student Alexandra Charitan. I was a little upset that the image of the moon was reversed from what we see, but also learned from my class at the Museum, that photographs taken through certain kinds of telescopes reversed the image. The good thing, though, was that the big red lips ended up exactly over the Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds) mentioned in the poem; the dark basalt plain in the southern hemisphere that I always imagined was the singer’s mouth.  Here’s the poem:

Night Song
The moon, sudden as a door slam,
rang the night awake.
The Aztecs saw a rabbit there.
For me, a singer croons.
A lunar anthem sounding
from the cloud-less mouth
of Mare Nubium; its tone
the perfect ‘A’ of Mozart’s clarinet.

Interestingly, since I wrote that poem I don’t see the ‘man in the moon’ singing anymore, as I once did.  It’s rabbits every night. What do you see?

I don’t know why I am so fascinated with the moon.  It just seems an impossible, magical thing, hanging up there in the sky.  You’d think that, with all we now know about it the romance of the moon would diminish.  But for me, it’s only grown.

Through the All Things Moon course, delightfully taught by the Museum’s deeply knowlegeable Shafran Observatory Manager, Clyde Simpson, I learned just how unique and symbiotic our Earth-Moon system is. In the massive collision of another planet (appropriately named Theia, in Greek mythology, a Titan goddess and mother of the moon goddess Selene), into our own 4.5 billion years ago, we acquired our mighty heart of iron.  In return we blasted and spun off fragmented elements of our crust which coalesced over time into the shining rock, locked in its orbit around us each day.  We are, in fact, geologic twins, or at least siblings.

Our world and life as we know it would not be possible without the companionable influence of our moon. The fact that it is moving away from us a tiny, tiny bit every year worries me.

“The Moon continues to spin away from the Earth, at the rate of 3.78cm (1.48in) per year, at about the same speed at which our fingernails grow.”  Dr. Maggie Alderin-Pocock

Read about it here.

 

Confrontation with the Moon

Full Moon732X520This morning, as the crescent moon sailed up the sky from the east, it pulled bright Venus and Saturn in its wake.  All three climbed, in straight-line order, through the bare-branch ladder of my neighbor’s front lawn tree, winking on and off as they advanced past each twiggy rung. Earlier, when I first rose, Jupiter shone through my bedroom skylight, with the tiny ruby of Mars in tow.

January 6 AM

Four planets and the moon in formation, marching up the January sky. The website EarthSky says that Mercury is there as well, just above the eastern horizon, but the structures of civilization block my view. I expect the brightening sky will make this planet invisible by the time it rises above the housetops.

I have come to love the dark early mornings of winter, when the sky is cloudless and the air, clean as crystal. With a dusting of snow, as there is today, everything seems more sharply defined—more open and exposed.  There’s no barrier between me and the cosmos.

Tonight I am taking my first of four classes at the Natural History Museum: All Things Moon.  And I am remembering the first time I saw the moon through a telescope, about 30 years ago.  When I put my eye to the eyepiece and the moon floated into view – so clear – it actually scared me. I could see the craters, the mountains and plains so razor sharp, right there-in front of me.  The distance between us disappeared and I was confronted, face-to-face, with the moon. Apollo 17

Confronted.  It felt like a confrontation; so powerful and immediate and undeniable in its detail.  The moon became real to me that night in a way it had never existed before. It became an impossible thing, a magical and deliciously frightening thing, hanging there in the night sky.

My mind could rationalize all I knew about how and why it was there – the gravitational attraction that created its intrinsically linked orbit, and the sun-earth shadows that engineered its shifting phases.  But the primitive in me was touched and the moon’s existence in my world suddenly became both impossible and frighteningly necessary, all at once.

I understand that our earth is alone among planets in its possession of a large moon so closely linked to and influencing the daily environmental activities of the planet. The tenuousness of life on earth – how thin the line is between what makes life possible or impossible in the universe is both wondrous and scary.

earthriseIn confronting the critical necessity of the moon’s existence to our own, here on this fragile planet—how can we continue to deny the impact of our influence on that tenuousness?

 

 

 

Photo credits: NASA Moon Gallery

Staying Surprised

I’ve never really understood the choreography of the orbits of the earth and moon. Friends in tune with such things send me lunar calendars each Christmas, and for a while I try to follow phases and anticipate the moon’s appearance in the evening or the morning sky.  oreo moonsBut I am always glad to give it up.

A few nights ago, just before its fullness, the moon awakened me at 3 AM, shining in my face through the skylight in my room.  It was a lovely moment, a private and surprising moment between the moon and me. By the time I rose at 6, it had almost set—just hovering amidst the trunks of neighbor’s trees at the back of my yard.  But today, it still rides high above my roof at 7 AM while the sun begins to flush the sky behind the houses across the road.

I could consult the website, www.earthsky.org on my phone before I go to bed, I suppose, to know what to expect. But I love the mystery, the surprise.  It’s another version of the adventure of discovering my neighborhood and how it subtly changes day to day.

Last week, in this unusually warm November, I sighted a wooly bear crawling out from under a bright red leaf.  I tried to remember what weatherman Dick Goddard said about its bands of black and rust that could predict the fierceness of the winter yet to come. Was it the wider the central band the harsher the winter, or the milder?  No matter.  It was fun to watch its furry inching walk, like a child’s wind-up toy.  wolly bear

So much of the world is predictable – can be known.  The changing of the seasons is no mystery. Neither is the movement of the stars.  But I want to be surprised, retain the air of wonder at the little shifts, the things I may have seen a thousand times before, but now are new.  “Pay attention!” the zen master says, as he whaps you with his staff to wake you from your state of mindlessness.

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Today I see the frost has finally come, and a little snow.  My skylight is rimed with the alchemy of cold and condensation.  As I step outside I see that in a shallow puddle on the sidewalk, tiny needles of ice have begun to cast their tatted nets of lace outward from the shore.

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