Thursday, January 12, 2012
Each time I fly and am treated to an evening sky amidst the stars--whether over the western United States or the South China Sea, the north Atlantic or north Pacific, the Mediterranean or the Balkan Peninsula--I take stock of the blackness of space, punctuated as it were by tiny beacons of light, and then pause for a moment, seized, when I spy an old friend, the moon.
Being a Cancer, I am ruled by the moon (so astrology informs me). Perhaps that explains my fascination with it, my need to see the rising Harvest Moon, my need to spot the waxing crescent moon just as its new cycle begins, my inability to sleep given the brightness of the Full Wolf Moon which occurred a few days ago. Being born on the cusp--literally on the cusp, as had I been born 4 minutes later I would technically be a Leo--I am also governed considerably by the sun. Talk about bipolar personality.
How many people stop to gaze at it, to ponder not its existence per se, but its meanings--meanings that no doubt become the moon's existence and its essence?
It is such an ordinary thing that we hardly notice it. There it is, that celestial object of ours, dependent on Earth's gravitational pull which drastically slows the moon's rotational speed and locks the moon in orbit, suspended in a state of perpetual revolution appearing each night in different form yet repeating itself exactly every 29.5 days.
The appearance of the thing--not its substance, not its essence--changes. And yet we treat those appearances as essential: waxing or waning, full or new, gibbous or crescent. These phases brought on by cyclical regularity become an essence, a feature around which cultures have forged calendars and thus make sense of time.
A calendar: not merely does it possess a specific structural form as an outline of days, weeks, months, and years, but also a broader, natural-ideational rendering of the passage of time. Pure lunar based calendars such as the Hijri or Islamic calendar are not synchronous with the solar calendar, and thus are not seasonally based. The Jewish lunisolar calendar, in contrast, compensates for the moon's annual drift of 11 or 12 days by inserting an additional month, Adar II, every two or three years to keep cultural and religious holidays in synch with the seasons (so as to to retain some connection between the socio-cultural construction of time and the seasons lest Passover fall in autumn and Hanukkah in July).
There is something primordially attractive about the rendering of time based not on 12 solar months but on the 13 cycles of the moon that occur within those 12 solar months. Native American tribes attributed names to the full moons--names that also applied between the new moons. Here in the northeast and mid-Atlantic region, we find the Algonquin tribe's names to be most familiar: the Full Wolf Moon (January) and the Full Pink Moon (April), the Full Buck Moon (July) and the Full Beaver Moon (November) may appear evocative to us, a throwback to something past, but in reality they corresponded to "events:" the gathering of packs of hungry wolves outside camps as the snows grew deeper and food scarcer; the appearance of wild ground phlox, one of the earliest spring blooming plants; the time when the antlers of male deer emerged, covered with velvety fur.
Calendars: incantations as it were.
To what: well, that is up to us, to the cultures which forge their renderings of time and mark not just is passing but foretell its coming with cyclical regularity.