Moon Shine.

As a kid I could always tell when it had snowed. Not because it was cold - in the winter it was always cold in my bedroom - but because of the quality of the silence. It was a silver silence, gilt edged and firm. Not the kind of silence that follows an argument, or a misplaced word. Not the kind of silence you wished you could fill with the everyday or the common place. Not the feather soft silence of a quietened room, a church, a concert hall, where the urge to shuffle your feet, click your fingers or clear your throat grows by the minute. It was the kind of silence that would bury you and make noise or hearing pointless. The creaks and clicks of a waking house sounded like an intrusion. It was not the kind of silence you heard every day. It was the kind of silence that is important to hear.

I doubt I will ever wake to snow and silence in Melbourne. But I do wake, now and then, into a new kind of light, a silver shadow light, gilt edged and firm. Moonlight washes through the house, gathers in pale pools below windows and doors. Not the sharp beams of an inquisitorial sun, or the sugar soft mood light of designer lamps, placed with infinite care in corners and under arches. In as far as modern houses are designed at all, they are not designed with moonlight in mind. Finding moonlight in your house, in ephemeral pools of silver, slight with the movement of the sky, seems like a gift. A coincidence not to be rejected, a silver stallion of such startling beauty and rarity that to inspect its teeth would be an insult.

The clouds slide across the face of the moon as it plays peek a boo, hide and seek with the faces on the ground. On a cloudy night, with a breeze pushing gently at your hair, you feel as though the sky is still and you are moving through it. Silently whirling through space with only the come and go light of the moon for company. On darker nights the clouds boil around the moon, layer upon layer. A faint patch in a darkened sky.

On some nights bats give in to cliché and fly across the face of the moon, and gather in noisy troops in fruit trees. By day they hang in the tree tops, with noisy frequent squabbles and much wrapping and unwrapping of wings. During the day you hear and smell the bats before you see them. At night, twitching branches, areas of greater darkness against the dull dark sky, lead you to them. They crash and rattle though the trees, clumsy, but still a night creature.

Sometimes the beating night wings are those of birds. A long time ago, in a different kind of place, the wings would have belonged to owls. Brown Tawny Owls sitting on fence posts, listening as much as looking or bright white Barn Owls floating over the road, coming in and going, flying the contours of the land, ghosting up onto their prey. Stealth hunting. Here the wings belong to Tawny Frogmouths, a kind of nightjar that is often mistaken for an owl. They are masters of cryptic disguise, but this ruse fails if they sit on ‘phone wires, waiting for the moths that are drawn to the street light’s glow. Here each thing feels the pull of the light that brightens the night. Moth to the street light candle flame, bird to the moth, me to the bird.

Night and day, life and death, the compass points of a life. Each night we give ourselves over to the little death of sleep. Night allows us to give the day away and know that the next one will come. Did the bringing of light begin the fear of death? With light we could prolong the day, keep the night away and with it postpone, briefly, a little death. And eventually did thoughts like this arise: “if we can find enough light, if we can push back the darkness, we can live forever?” How many religions equate their imagined friends and the promise of forever with light? Did the Sun God become the Son of Heaven? Has making light created demons rather than pushed back the shadows? Has light caused us to fear the very thing we know we cannot avoid? To know you can come through darkness is not to know you will live forever, but to know that death is natural, and final. Did the first man or woman who looked out into the shadow cast by the first fire know that they preferred the light to the dark? Did they crave more and more light? Did they think that the light could drive away the dark forever? And in that did they cast the seed of fear and doubt into our minds? Was that the moment when we started a war on darkness that continues to this day?

I’m not sure that people fear the night, but they do seem to fear the dark. Imagine the time and energy that has been spent on needlessly pushing back the darkness. Streetlights burn through the long hours of the night only illuminating themselves. The Earth viewed from space is a speckled mass of light, each point of light a soldier in the war against darkness, and most of them fuelled in way that seems to be burning tomorrow as much as protecting today.

My walk to work began in the kind of clear light that is only made possible by rain. I spend the day at my desk, altering the patterns of magnetism on a spinning disc and speaking to people in Japan. A day of pushing electrons into new places. The walk home should have been in near darkness, but of course it was not. Light leaks from shop windows and doors, from twisting garden path lights and street lamps, from passing cars, from automated lamps that welcome the unexpected by beating back the darkness. The faces of some people glow from the light of their phones as they talk and walk and talk walk. I walked along streets that had been robbed of their darkness, and instead were robed in a pale, yellow wash of light.

The sky was never really dark on the way home, there was too much light, and too much colour. It stayed blue, but became a darker and darker shade, so in the end the whole sky seemed covered in shadow. The moon was just a thin bright slither, with a dull disc held in the arcs – the old moon holding the new moon in its arms. The face of the moon lit with dull Earth glow and the Earth bright with the shine of our invention.
For almost half a year I lived on the west coast of Ireland, on an island just across the sea from Baltimore. I earned almost no money, so many nights were spent nursing endless cups of tea and looking out over the Atlantic. And between me and my cooling tea and the eastern seaboard of the United States there was almost nothing at all. Just wave after wave of empty sea. On new moon nights it was the darkest place I’d ever been, but because of this I could see more lights than I ever imagined existed. Bright stars, dull stars. Stars without end. The slow track of satellites. The faster, blinking lights of planes. Sometimes the sea itself would glow with the light of uncountable life. Enough stars to count a million million restless children to sleep. But mostly it was dark. This was the first time I’d seen the sky as the ancient stone carvers and architects had seen it. They saw signs and portents in the movement of the lights in the sky, and even today I doubt it’s possible to look at such a sky and not have at least one question come to mind; “Hello, is there anybody out there?” Both religion and SETI are based on the same question; “Are we really alone?”

In the darkness people looked up to the moon and saw a face – I struggle to do this. Some people saw a hare, and the moon goddess they created came to Earth in that form. In countries and cultures separated by sweeps of both time and distance the moon and the hare are linked. Madness and fertility linking the moon and the quick silver dash of an animal that we barely know. We can laugh at such beliefs, but we bring the Moon Hare goddess into our houses each Easter, morphed into a rabbit, formed from chocolate, as we pretend to celebrate something other than the coming of spring and the ending of winter. Easter day itself is regulated by the phase of the moon and a arcane calculation that goes back centuries.
For all that the night has been illuminated by our design, I think it does no harm to walk in the moonshine of a clear evening and consider the things we have done, or the things we have yet to see.


Stewart M said...

Hi there, this has a bit of a different origin to most of my posts – a week or so ago I finished reading a book about moonlight – and I had found the whole things rather disappointing – too much art history and not enough moonlight.

So, I thought I’d have a go at a moonlight post myself – and this post is what happened.

I did not think this information needed to be in the post, so that's why it’s here.

Cheers - Stewart M.

Arija said...

Stewart, I enjoyed your lyrical writing immensely, every single word.
Snow, silence, moonlight, total darkness and the firmament as full of stars as it can hold. All things close to my heart. Do you remember when you awaken to the silence and open your eyes, even if the silence had not pre-warned you, the difference in the dawn light drags you out of bed and to the window. The rush of wonder as you 'know' there was a snow-fall during the night. There is so much comfort to be found in these natural phenomena. The sheer magic of moonlight refracting in dew drops . . .

So many pleasures to be found in the simplest things in nature.

Thank you my friend for paying ready attention.

PS at last we are getting some winter rain.

Kel said...

well you had me in the first sentence
the sound of snow!
you describe it so well
now I want to head to the mountains and give the snowshoes an outing :)

then linking the silver silence of snow to the moon ... your blog's name says it all ... paying attention

In the past I have posted about the wisdom we can find in the shadows. Being willing to travel for a time in darkness is a walk that many people avoid, but your post today tells me you are not one of them, for you have learned to see in the dark.

texwisgirl said...

you truly have a gift. your words are as beautiful as the images. :)

Martha Z said...

This is a wonderful essay, Stewart. You drew me along, evoking my own images: my husband's tales of waking in the night to the silence of new snow (I was not raised where there was snow), the sound of vultures, not bats, rustling their wings in a campground as they settle for the night.
And the dark and the moon, those I know well. Where we spend much of the summer all of the cabins are "off the grid". When the moon nears full the light streams into the cabin at night. As the moon grows small and rises late the stars come into their own and the cabin is so dark at night we must feel our way if we get up.

Hilke Breder said...

Stewart, you have a great gift in writing, very evocative, eye and mind opening - making connections where I hadn't seen any before. I was particularly moved by your description of various types of silence in the first paragraph.

JM said...

Awesome moon shots!

OceanoAzul.Sonhos said...

What a magnificients shots, i love the moon.