Sunday, January 17, 2010

New moon

I don't want to be a new Moon bore. I know I've written about new-Moon-chasing a dozen times. But last evening's crescent was especially beautiful. It's on my mind.

What makes a young Moon beautiful first of all is seeing it, the younger the better. Any Moon younger than 30 hours is deliciously thin, and tricky to see in the waning daylight unless you have a crisp, clear western horizon. Catching a 24-hour-old Moon before it sets is spine-tingling.

Last evening's Moon was an easy 38 hours old. But youth is not the only thing that makes a new Moon beautiful. There's also the sky -- its color, its clarity, the disposition of clouds, the presence of planets such as last evening's Jupiter -- and how many glasses of wine one has had to drink. Standing half-naked on a tropic isle helps too. And so it was that even a 38-hour-old Moon was breathtakingly lovely. An silver eyelash. The paring of a nail. A wisp of thistledown afloat on the breeze.

There was the time, before clocks and calendars and "top-of-the-hour" television, when folks divided up their lives by the cycles of Sun and Moon. The solar seasons are marked by the solstices and equinoxes; the year began when the shadow of a vertical stick at noon is longest. But that's not something that is obvious to the casual observer. "Solstice" means "Sun-stands"; the length of the shadow doesn't change much from day to day around the solstices. And besides, what fun is there standing in the sun looking at a stick? But the Moon! the month! -- ah, now that's different. We know when the month begins -- when the most keen-eyed among us catches that slip of moonglow in the western sky. Which is why the cycles of the Moon figure so prominently in the world's past and present calendars, such as that of Muslims, who begin their New Year at sunset on the day when the appropriate new Moon becomes visible, or the Jewish New Year, that begins at sunset with the new Moon closest to the autumn equinox.

And so do Muslims and Jews begin their religious observances. As for me, catching that wisp of lunar light with Earthshine gathered in its arms is liturgy enough.