It is a fundamental characteristic of human nature to try to make sense of the world and the phenomena we notice within it. And yet, while watching the moon, in spite of my modern education, it’s not hard to strip away scientific explanations for the existence and movements of the objects I see, and to wonder at them with childlike awe.
Because I am usually preoccupied with work or family during the day, most of my still, peaceful sessions with the moon take place at night. Sitting outside, with only the rural nocturnal noises for company, I can lose my sense of self in a contemplation that becomes a meditation. On each of these occasions, the moon seems unique and unchanging, beyond the breezes and clouds that temporarily mask it. And yet, even over the course of a single observation session, there is movement, and I must adjust my chair, or turn my head, to follow the moon’s imperceptible glide across the sky.
If I return the following night, there are more noticeable changes: the moon will be showing more or less of its face, and if I look for it in the place where it was at the same time the previous night, it isn’t there.
Sometimes I think of the ways that peoples have tried to understand the appearance and changes in the sky. When I see how the stars keep their configurations, how each one has stayed in the same place in relation to all the others over the whole of the time that I have been interested in the sky, common sense tells me that they are eternal and invariable, whatever my scientific training may suggest. When I contrast the annual cycle of the sun, with its rising and setting points marching across the horizon and the seasons that mesh with this, with the shorter cycle of the moon, which has much greater variation in its shape and the strength of its light, I appreciate some of the stories peoples have created to explain these phenomena. Outside, alone in the dark, I sometimes believe some of them.
How about the idea that the moon is a big rock, set on fire by the sun when they are together in the sky, and burns and grows until full moon, when the fire gradually dies down over the next couple of weeks, only to be rekindled as it passes close to the sun again? Or that the moon is the sun’s bride, and that you should never look up at the sky at new moon, for that is when they are close enough together to mate?
If I were living a couple of thousand years ago or so, trying to bring order into my understanding of the skies, I might really have gone for the idea that there is a kind of celestial hierarchy of change, where natural phenomena on earth – winds, tides, seasons – are constantly in motion; where the moon’s cycle is steady and predictable, and takes a month; where the sun is slower still, taking a year to run its course against the background of the stars; and where the stars themselves are constant and unchanging. I can appreciate that this pattern would have supported a geocentric view of the cosmos: it places earth at the centre of things, not because man is important and everything must revolve around us, but because the world is seen as a bubble of restless motion, with shells around it gradually becoming more stable – the moon, the planets, the sun – until the perfection of the stars is reached.
This makes perfect sense to me, when I am sitting quietly with the moon and the stars, although, in the busy days that make up most of my life, I know that it isn’t so. And sometimes I wonder, if it takes many nights of peaceful contemplation to appreciate the thoughts of those early astronomers, whether I do all that I need, to fully understand the viewpoints of the people close to me.