Friday, 28 June 2013

The man and the supermoon

"Everyone is a moon, and has a darker side which he never shows to anybody." 
(Mark Twain)

"Man and the Moon", by Tina Palmer

"Moon River" 
(Johnny Mercer) 
Moon river wider than a mile,
I'm crossing you in style someday. 
You dream-maker, you heart-breaker, 
Wherever you're going I'm going your way. 
Two drifters off to see the world; 
There's such a lot of world to see. 
We're after the same rainbow's end, 
Waiting round the bend: 
My huckleberry friend, 
Moon river and me.

"Moon River" Audrey Hepburn ("Breakfast at Tiffany's")

Having finished work very late at the beginning of the week, I wandered off down the High Street in the wee hours, looking for the moon. It seems there are a lot of folk meandering up and down the Lewes Road at 1.30 in the morning, searching for the moon and other things. The moon, perhaps sensibly, was hiding behind a blanket of mist. From my own little street, this larger and brighter than usual moon was barely evident. I live in a low part of Brighton - probably in more ways than one - with steep banks of housing and buildings on either side. A full perigee moon always appears much lower on the horizon: it took three days until the June "supermoon" was on the wane before I could get a photo of it actually over the rooftops in my road.
Some stunning photos from across the world have been taken of the supermoon. I've posted some of them here; the last two are from Brighton; the final and by far the least impressive one is from my doorstep. I was determined to capture a bit of the supermoon: coinciding with the summer solstice and the full moon of St John's night, it seemed like a hopeful beacon. When I was little, my Dad of course told me there was a man in the moon who would know if I wasn't sleeping. Years later, I learned that The Man in the Moon is actually a traditional phenomenon as well as being a sentimental childhood essential.
I hadn't realised that for centuries across the northern hemisphere, the dark areas of the moon, the seas, in contrast to the lighter highlands have been perceived as human features. Maybe we need the moon to show a friendly face: earth's closest neighbour in space, it's comparatively large for a natural satellite orbiting a planet of this size. The moon is the brightest sight in our heavens after the sun, although in fact it's surface is dark, like coal and with a similar reflectance.
Old European tradition tells of a man being banished to the moon for some misdemeanor: Christian folklore depicts him as the man caught gathering sticks for firewood on the sabbath. Another Christian legend depicts him as Cain, doomed to circle the earth in exile, as depicted in Dante's "Inferno". In Norse mythology, the moon was a man in a horse drawn carriage, passing across the sky to escape a great wolf; in the Germanic and Roman cultures, he was also a thief of various descriptions, stealing away over the earth before daybreak.
In some eastern cultures, and particularly in Chinese tradition, the inhabitant of the moon was sometimes thought to be a stranded goddess, with only "moon rabbits" for company. Even today, Chinese children are shown how the features of the moon may represent the moon rabbit, rather than a man's face.
A prominent feature in our night skies and with a regularity of phases, the moon has gained a comforting familiarity since ancient times. The moon's orbit and gravity draw the ocean tides and the length of our days. Scientists believe the moon was formed shortly after the earth, from the fallout of debris and matter after we collided with something the size of Mars. The moon remains the only other celestial body that man has set foot on. Since the United States' Apollo 17 mission in 1972, only unmanned crafts have visited the moon, some confirming the discovery of lunar water ice - the moon's surface can't support liquid water. The Outer Space Treaty declares the moon to be free to all nations to explore for peaceful purposes; a sentiment that perhaps isn't honoured here on earth.
The moon has had a huge influence on folklore, language and the arts. Initially pushed into learning to play the piano when I was little, the first piece of "proper" piano music I grew to love was Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune". As a fan of Mark Twain, I love the imagery of the song "Moon River" with even a "huckleberry friend". The song features in one of my favourite films, "Breakfast at Tiffany's", with Audrey Hepburn at her most adorable: half Irish and half Belgian and a bit kooky; what's not to like? I love the innocence of Hepburn's film version of the song, although Andy William's velvety voice was a perfect match to the poem and the melody. (I'd recommend looking up the film if you're not familiar with it, or have forgotten how magical it is).
The regular and distinct phases of the moon have made it a convenient and fascinating timepiece throughout history. The waxing and waning of the moon formed the basis of many of the most ancient calendars. The lunar cycle is approximately thirty days long and the English word for "month" and it's cognates in other Germanic languages originate from "the moon"; Germanic cultures relied on lunar calendars before any solar one. The oldest depiction of the moon is thought to be a rock carving at Knowth in Ireland, some five thousand years old.
In some ancient cultures, the moon was personified as a deity or supernatural entity. It has a long association with hopefulness and luck but also with emotions, irrationality and even insanity. The word "lunacy" obviously derives from the Latin name for the moon; even Aristotle, who wasn't short on marbles himself, believed the water component of the human brain must be affected by the moon's tidal power. Today, it's understood that the moon's gravity is too slight to affect an individual's brain function. Tales of increased accidents, homicides, suicides and psychiatric admissions at full moon persist but with little or no consistently supportied evidence. Certainly the euphoria and despair ill-met by moonlight on the Lewes Road most nights owe more to the influences and addictions of this world than the orbit of any satellite.
The full moon has always been emotive for me because it is simply beautiful, as distant and mysterious as it is predictable and symmetrical. My mother used to have me make a wish on the full moon, always starting "Dear God"; wishes, prayers all headed in the same direction. She also told me to turn coins over in my pocket at the new moon for prosperity. Walking down the main road in the first hours of the new day, I couldn't see the big moon for clouds and houses, but I did find the baby moon of a ten pence piece twinkling on the damp pavement.
The moon is a benign companion, to children, drunks, dreamers and doers. It's constancy and luminosity assuage childhood nightmares and adult loneliness. The magic of the night is part romance and part uncertainty and moonlight and moon-shadow will paint pictures that the day cannot sustain. As with everything serenely beautiful, it has an inexorable power, enough to pull the oceans from one shore to another. James Joyce spoke of the moon's "inscrutable tranquility". The same moon that appears to keep pace with me on my walks home at night along the Level will be lingering along with lovers by the Seine or guiding a lost backpacker somewhere unpronounceable. Even when we see the moon wane, it's size and shape remain perfectly the same. Every night, the moon is, generally, where we left it, just like our dreams.

"Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth." 

Starlings across the full moon at Brighton pier...

... and my own less spectacular photo of the this week's supermoon over my street. 

"Clair de Lune" ("Moonlight")  Claude Debussy

"Sometimes weak and wan, sometimes strong and full of light. The moon understands what it means to be human.
Uncertain. Alone. Cratered by imperfections." 
(Tahereh Mafi)

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