Following the seasons, noticing the shifts in the sun’s movements across the sky, being aware of the phases of the moon: these were once core skills that helped our ancestors to survive. Hunter-gathers used this knowledge to predict where they would find plentiful vegetation, or when to prepare to follow the herd that provided their meat. Agricultural communities planted their crops according to the time of year, and needed to predict when to start preparing for the fallow months. Most societies had stories about the cosmos, that helped them to explain the world and understand their place within it. Each community had to devise their own calendar, incorporating the moments in the year’s cycle that were key to their existence, and to do this, they followed the movements of the sun and the moon.
Technological breakthroughs mean that a large part of the earth’s children no longer have to do this. All kinds of food are available year-round, without any effort from us, the consumers. We hand over a debit card at the supermarket checkout, and we don’t have to know which of our purchases were flown half-way around the world from a place with a different climate, which were grown with the help of artificial heat and light, or which were spurred on to unnatural lengths by a carefully controlled mix of chemicals. If we are cold, we turn up the heating. We have a scientific certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the long nights will one day shorten, that the ice will melt, that warmth and bounty will return; and until they do, we have electric lights, central heating, and a well-stocked freezer.
Let me admit straight away that I have no desire to go back to an uncertain and gruelling life in a mud hut. But I do feel that we lose a great deal if we dismiss the understanding of our ancestors to hurtle ever faster towards a supposedly brighter tomorrow. I fear that our reliance on technology and our deification of the scientific approach may be blinding us to another, more subtle, wisdom.
And this is why I watch the moon.
Even in our insulated, artificially cocooned lives, where we spend most of our time indoors, and much of our working life sitting down, we still maintain a vestigial awareness of the sun. We notice when it’s shining, we’re aware as we leave the house for work or the shops that it has risen, we may regret its absence as we drive home through winter evenings. If we have a regular work pattern, or a routine to our days, we might even sense that the days are getting longer, because each week we are driving home in a lighter twilight. And so it’s easy to keep an awareness of the yearly cycle, of some basic knowledge of the seasons.
But the moon is more subtle. Because the sun outshines it, many people don’t know any more that the moon is in the sky as often in the daytime as at night. Because its movements appear more complex, and show a greater change from one day to the next, the moon sometimes gets described as “inconstant” or “unpredictable”. And yet, our ancestors were familiar with its ways; they measured and kept records of lunar cycles, and knew where the moon would be in the sky and how much of it would be visible on any date, at any time. While the sun – bright, hot, showy, obvious – was used for calculating the seasons and the annual calendar, more precise, small-scale measurements depended on the subtleties of the moon’s cycle.
And so I watch the moon. I note where it is in the sky, what it looks like, which parts of its face are visible. When I see it, I try to predict where it will be in an hour, or tomorrow at the same time. I try to be aware of where it stands in its monthly cycle, and to estimate how many days it will be because it is full, or disappears completely in the glare of the sun.
I do this partly because the moon interests me. But I see my attentiveness to the moon mostly as a metaphor. Whenever I stop to look at the moon, whenever I tune in to my growing understanding of how it looks and moves, I am taking a step back from my technology-enhanced lifestyle, and getting in touch with a more subtle wisdom. I am moving out of a logical framework, and into a more intuitive context. And it is in this space that I can begin to see the world in a different way, and learn to know it and myself more completely.
I see this as a process; it is about the wondering, the pondering, the imagining. Feel free to accompany me on this journey!