Sunday, March 08, 2009

That old devil moon

Yesterday's post brought to mind Somerset Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence, which was based on the life of Paul Gauguin, and I began to wonder about the meaning of he title. I read the book too long ago to remember, if I ever knew.

So to the internet. Apparently, the title is not drawn from the novel itself. Rather, it was adopted from a review of an earlier Maugham novel, On Human Bondage. The reviewer says of a character in that novel that he was so busy yearning for the Moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet. I'm guessing a more thorough search would show an even older pedigree for the saying; it has the ring of a common adage.

In any case, we know what a "moony" person is, someone dreamy and impractical who always has his head in the clouds. And, look, he steps right over the sixpence. Tsk-tsk.

Here on this island of tides, wide horizons and clear skies, I'm inclined to vote for the Moon. We follow its phases assiduously. Watching for that first eyelash of new Moon in the gloaming, then in the following nights "the new Moon in the old Moon's arms," lit by Earthshine. From beach chairs at the edge of the tide in the afternoons we watch the Moon climb high and grow fat. Then, the full Moon rises out of the sea, improbably large, a textbook illustration of the Moon illusion. Best of all, the next few nights the just-past-full Moon rises in darkness, preceded by a lunar dawn, moonlight reflecting off of clouds before the disk breaks the horizon, until -- there! -- that flash of light just where sea meets sky. Awake in darkness to trace the Moon on its high winter arc (here on the Tropic of Cancer the full Moon tracks directly overhead in winter). Up before dawn to watch the old Moon shrivel and slide into the dawn.

And, of course, I'd never be without my Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar, always prepared for lunar conjunctions, occultations and eclipses, any one of which is worth a pocketful of sixpences.

There was a time when the Moon loomed large in human lives. Old Moon. Snow Moon. Sap Moon. Egg Moon. Milk Moon. Flower Moon. Thunder Moon. Grain Moon. Fruit Moon. Harvest Moon. Hunter's Moon. Long Night Moon. All of that is mostly gone now. In my New England village we barely know the Moon exists. But here on this speck of land in wide dark sea the Moon holds her own in an inky sky like a shiny silver coin, newly minted month after month.