As I was leaving for a dinner date with my “someone special” on Friday night, my eyes immediately fell upon the moon. It was a waning gibbous (just a day or two past “full”) and it was big, bright, and simply beautiful. It seemed to illuminate the entire sky around it. For me, like for countless others, the moon has always had a remarkable effect. When I was a young child (since the age of two or three), my grandmother would make it a point to always draw my attention to the moon. I do that now with my daughter (she’s three and can already recognize a crescent, quarter, or gibbous moon), and I hope that she always looks up to see what beauty the night sky has to offer her.
Tonight I finished reading Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, by James Attlee. A book, that upon finishing it, had me thinking of Friday’s moon. Attlee begins with a wonderful retelling of how the book came about. He writes,
Strange indeed are the places that give birth to the ideas that later, for better or worse, find physical form as books. I first encountered my subject lying on my back in a dentist’s chair. In an effort to distract the minds of those undergoing treatment, the dentist in question had attached a large photographic poster to the ceiling depicting the earth at night, seen from space. It is to the distant yet familiar world that his patients cast their eyes, sometimes blurred by tears, sometimes pre-naturally sharpened by the effort of ignoring their discomfort. What they learn is that much of the planet we inhabit no longer experiences ‘night’ as it was once understood.
With that, Attlee begins the fascinating tale of his journey in search of the moon and moonlight. He travels around the world, not only exploring the places themselves, but the culture and history that have shaped our lunar perceptions. We accompany him on moonlit boat rides on the Thames, and Buddhist full-moon ceremonies in Japan. We sit enthralled as he describes the myriad places the moon has occupied in history, and through an exploration of literature and art, Attlee reveals the enormous impact that the moon has had on our many cultures.
We have, for centuries, been enraptured and mystified by the moon. It has served as the backdrop for lovers, for spies, for thieves, and for those in search of themselves. In literature, writers and poets from Milton, to Goethe, Li Po, and Blake, the moon has, if nothing else, been an ever-present source of inspiration. So too with art, and even music (“Moonlight Sonata,” “Clair de Lune,” and many others). At Attlee writes early in the book,
moonlight does not reveal. . . it transforms, changing colors and contours in its shape-shifting light.
And it is this quality of the moon as both a source of illumination and obfuscation, with its powers to both expose and hide, have given it an enduring place in our collective cultures.
Like Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, Nocturne is a book about a journey, and the transformative powers of our experiences. For Attlee it was a two-year journey in search of the moon through time, place, art, and in the pages of books. Reading Nocturne has made want to head far away from the city lights to see the moon in all its bigness and brightness. It has made me stop and remember not only Friday’s moon and the wonderful night that it brightened, but the hundreds of other moons that are tied to hundreds of other memories. And its made me look forward to the many moons to come.