A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Dark Side

“Look Mama, it’s a waxing gibbous!”  One small mitten was pointing skyward.

“Oooh, yeah!”  My two daughters had both stopped in their tracks directly in front of me – presumably because the neurons needed for walking, talking, and looking at celestial objects are wired in series rather than in parallel in their brains. “I can see the shadows -- where the long-ago meteors hit it!” 

The kindergarten astronomers were entranced.  It’s the moon!  It’s in the sky!  It’s shining!  Clearly this merited some kind of public service announcement, at the very least.

I tried to share their enthusiasm.  But we’d seen the moon the previous morning on the way to school.  We would see it again tomorrow.  I was concentrating on keeping my footing on our narrow, winding, snow-covered boardwalk while hauling a sled full of groceries.  My headlamp kept slipping down and illuminating random clumps of snow-covered shrubbery.  If we didn’t get moving, the lettuce would freeze into a state of irredeemable black nastiness.  Besides, I was feeling distinctly ambivalent about the giant ball of rock that orbits the earth.  When the moon takes center stage in the afternoon sky in Fairbanks, it means that the sun has headed off towards the Tropic of Capricorn for a vacation.  A long vacation.  That pale celestial orb is the Harbinger of Gloom.  She’s the Queen of Darkness.  She’s the Seasonal Affective Satellite.

I never used to have anything against the moon.  In fact, during the nerdy-science-fiction and wannabe-astrophysicist phase of my life (roughly encompassing everything from age five onwards) I learned an egregious amount of trivia about not only our own moon, but also more esoteric satellites such as Ganymede, Titan, Phobos, and Charon.  Other planets have hordes of little followers.  We have just one, but she’s special.  For a planet Earth’s size, Luna is enormous, practically a sister-planet, which is why she wreaks all kinds of interesting tidal havoc on our world.  Contrary to popular belief, the moon doesn’t have a dark side – at least not a permanent one.  She always shows us the same face, but the phases we see, from new to full and back again, are the month-long lunar day.  Even though our moon’s surface is actually as dark as coal, she reflects an appreciable amount of sunlight – a.k.a. moonlight -- to Earth’s surface.

Enough light, perhaps, to allow a bumbling human to haul groceries along a boardwalk. I gave up on my headlamp, and turned it off.  Minus its distracting flicker, the waxing gibbous seemed even larger, brighter, and more in command of the firmament.  She cast cool shadows across the snow.  The spruce trees were gray against the sky.

“Will it be a full moon tomorrow, Mommy?”

“Um… probably the day after tomorrow,” I hazarded, switching hands on the sled’s narrow tow-rope. 

When I was a kid, I noticed the moon too, but I could never keep track of its phases, and I never thought of it as a source of light.  It also never struck me as being a depressing sun-substitute. The moon decorated the sky, but didn’t illuminate the ground.  That job was already more than covered by the omnipresent street lamps, headlights, and chain-store-neon, as well as the amorphous yet ubiquitous combined glow of Bos-NY-Wash.  I looked at books that showed me which constellations ought to be in the sky.  I remember finding the faint outline of the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, and then giving up in disappointment.  In the suburbs of New York City, it doesn’t get dark. Not really dark.  Not ever.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager camping in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton Wilderness that I found a sky that looked like a planetarium,  If the moon was full, it felt bright enough to read by (teenagers have good eyes).  At the new moon, it was dark enough to walk straight into the privy pit or the side of a moose.  This was the moon that humanity has obsessed about for the past couple of hundred thousand years. 

Throughout history, the moon has sparked imaginative beliefs, quaint rituals, and a plethora of paranoid and illogical behavior.  Worldwide, we’ve created enough legends about the moon to stuff a library, and enough lunar gods to satisfy the most ardent pantheist.  Artemis, Thoth, Hecate, Chandra, Tarqiup Inua, Luna…  Not everyone agrees what the moon-god’s gender is, although I seem to have been brainwashed by Greco-Roman cultural imperialism in my bias toward “she.” There’s also disagreement as to what awe-inspiring powers he/she/it has, but there are some common threads.  The moon is potent, and mysterious, and might make you a little unbalanced. In fact, it might turn you into a werewolf, a vampire, or – eponymously – a lunatic.  Everyone also seems to agree that the moon is the opposite of the sun – and that the two of them don’t always get along too well.  In November in Fairbanks, this kind of mythology makes perfect sense to me.

Don’t be ridiculous, says my scientist-self.  Cosmically speaking, a G2V yellow dwarf star is no more the opposite of a rocky planetary satellite than a jet engine is the opposite of a piece of belly-button lint.  Sure, ancient people were understandably misled about the whole equal-and-opposite thing, because by strange coincidence, the moon appears to be almost exactly the same size as the sun. This only goes to show that binocular depth perception isn’t worth much at astronomical distances – although it also means that solar eclipses are really cool.  Nevertheless, it’s hard not to think of the moon as a winter-time booby-prize as our daylight dwindles.

“Are there any people on the moon right now, Mommy?”

“How come there’s no air there?”

“How did the astronauts breathe?”

“Are air tanks heavy?”

“Why is everything lighter on the moon?”

The kids have lots of questions, but they don’t ask why people went to the moon.  Neither did I, as a kid. I remember being sadly let down when I finally realized, as a much-older child, that NASA astronauts were goaded moonward in the 1960s not just by the wonderful tempting proximity of that bone-dry cratered surface, but also by America’s peculiarly immature competition with the USSR. 

And somehow, it’s the memory of that disappointment, coupled with my own kids’ eagerness, that finally sets me straight.  I knew, once upon a time, that the moon is wonderful in its own right, without comparison, and without a hidden agenda.  When my younger self saw the shadow of our national hubris on the moon, it made me squirm.  Now, when I see my former enthusiasm in a couple of new-millennium kindergarteners, I suddenly notice how irritatingly negative I’m being.  I’m failing to appreciate the subtle-yet-serviceable light on offer, because I’m too busy resenting the fierce glow that is absent. Kids provide a fantastic – and often uncomfortably acute – means of self-examination.  They are merciless mirrors.

The moon is a mirror, too.  For millennia, it has mirrored humanity’s fears about darkness and the unknown, and our dreams about magic and eternal rebirth.  It mirrors our desire to divide everything neatly into black and white, day and night, right and wrong, yin and yang.  And, in the simplest and most literal sense, it mirrors the sun’s rays. 

Far from stealing my sunshine, as I stood there in the snow with my groceries and my grouchy mood, Luna was giving a little sliver of it back to me.   Somewhere, on the other side of the world the sun was blazing.  In South Africa, maybe, or India, someone was catching its full glare.  But here in Fairbanks, we were being treated to a magic trick of sorts.  A trace of sun was being conjured out of space, and donated to us here on the dark side.  It wasn’t much, perhaps, but it was enough to guide a sled, and cast a shadow, and see two kids’ grins.  And like many good magic tricks, it was all done with mirrors. 

Luna is waning now.  I already miss her.  In her absence, I have to recharge my headlamp batteries more often.  I need to take a light with me every time I wander out to the outhouse or check on the dogs.  Without her, I have no shadow.  But here in Fairbanks, a single month represents only a small portion of winter.  Before we hit the very darkest of dark days, the moon will be back.

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