In her new monthly column, The Moon in Full, Nina MacLaughlin illuminates humanity’s long-standing lunar fascination. Each installment will be published in advance of the full moon.
An electric blue dusk in an April eight years ago, and a fat full moon was showing off above the trees. I was away from home and walking to a bar to celebrate something privately, and I paused on my way to watch the moon move, its blond glow shifting bonier as it tracked its path higher into the coppery blue. “Beautiful night,” said the bartender when I took a seat. “Beautiful night, beautiful moon,” I said. He poured my drink and an older gentleman on the stool to my right leaned toward me and asked with a sticky blue cheese voice, “What does a young woman like you think of the full moon?” I laughed. Was he asking me if my womb was throbbing? What does anyone think of the full moon? I told him I didn’t know how to answer that question. I’ve been thinking about it since.
It’s April again, surging month, and the full moon rises tonight. What do you think of the moon? Joyce considers “her luminary reflection … her potency over effluent and refluent waters: her power to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite to and aid delinquency: the tranquil inscrutability of her visage … her arid seas, her silence.” So: light, power, water, beauty, insanity, delinquency, tranquility, inscrutability, silence. It’s a start. The moon reflects back what we aim at it; what we see there tells us as much about ourselves as it does about this chalky pearl two hundred forty thousand miles away, give and take. “Between us / we had seventeen words / to describe the moon,” writes the poet Arundhathi Subramaniam. I wonder what they were. Let’s see how many we can come up with.
Before that, one word. In more than two dozen languages, the words for month and moon are the same. In Croatian, mjesec; Czech, měsíc; Slovak, mesiac. In Filipino, buwan; in Malay, bulan. In Japanese, 月 (tsuki); Hmong, lub hlis; Maori, marama; Igbo, onwa; and Zulu, inyanga. In Romanian, Estonian, Uzbek, and Turkish: lună, kuu, oy, ay. Our timekeeper, our month maker, our definer of cycles, tetherballing around us in 27.32-day spans. I say our as though we own it, as though it belongs to us, attached to where we are by the invisible bands of gravity. It does not belong to us. If anything, we belong to it, subjects to its rhythms, its pull, its power, the night’s one glowing, slow-blinking eye. Across the world, notions of month and moon mingle and mesh in the very language they’re expressed. You cannot talk about one without talking about the other.
Lună Kuu Oy Ay
I saw it written and I saw it say.
April’s full moon is the Pink Moon, per the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which draws on Native American and Colonial American sources. Pink moon, pink month: April with its cotton candy texture, sweet spun sugar wool. April brings the sense—everything stirring, about to burst or bursting—that one is waking up from a dream, or moving into another one. It “comes like an idiot,” as Edna St. Vincent Millay puts it, “babbling and strewing flowers.” April’s nighttime atmosphere has a distinct flavor to it, too. The blue light of this month’s dusks is thin, metallic, not the take-a-spoonful blue of November dusks. And lamplight through windows on early evening walks is lemony, not the hearthy and inviting orange-gold glow when the year gets colder. Here in the small northeastern city where I live the birds returned some weeks ago, their sour song in the predawn dim getting sweeter as spring makes more of an effort. The Pink Moon refers not to the color of this evening’s moon but to a star-shaped, pink-petaled flower that spreads itself across the continent this month called phlox.
Flocks of rufa red knots, shorebirds with russet breasts, are on the move right now, making their annual nine-thousand-mile migration from Tierra del Fuego up to the Arctic, where they lay their eggs. On the night of the full moon in April, horseshoe crabs, ancient armored beasts of the sea, are drawn to the shores of the mid-Atlantic to lay their eggs. Urged by the swell of the tide and the ultraviolet light of the moon, they travel up from the seafloor and scramble in the sand; waves lap over their spiked shells as they deposit millions of slick, jewel-like sacks of horseshoe matter into the shallow ditches they’ve dug. The red knots depend on these eggs to fuel them for the rest of their journey north. Each year, the birds descend to the beaches of Delaware and New Jersey timed to this state of moon swell and make a great feed, gulping horseshoe eggs by the hundred thousand before they take wing again, heavier, egg-loaded, in this lunar-led triangle of timing and survival. Egg Moon is another name for what’s up tonight.
What’ll hatch? What’ll come out? What’ll crack through the shell and emerge into this busted, blooming world? What blind, hungry, pin-boned pouch of needs? What fresh life? “It’s spring,” writes the poet Ouyang Jianghe, “and everyone’s got something to puke.” April is the year’s heaving dress rehearsal. This month and moon provoke a spewing and strewing, a laying, a seeding, a spreading. At the bottom of Craigie Street, a magnolia tree drops its white and pale-pink goat-tongue petals and the sidewalk is slicked with them as footfalls grind them slimy. I see the petals on morning walks and wonder if the blooms on the tree fold up in the moonlight or stay splayed. “Tonight the moon is full,” writes Clarice Lispector. “Through the window the moon covers my bed and turns everything milky bluish white … I escape by closing my eyes. Because the full moon is light insomnia: numb and drowsy like after love. And I had decided to go to sleep so I could dream, I was missing the news that comes in the dream.”
What news in the dream? My mother tells me she can’t sleep on the full moon. It might be true for me, too, but whether I inherited it in my blood or by suggestion, I do not know. Either way, I like the idea of the full moon as light not being able to sleep. What news in the dream? Limulus polyphemus is the name of the horseshoe crab that the red knots eat the eggs of, named after Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant who smashes Odysseus’s men against the wall of his cave and sucks their brains and bones before Odysseus gouges out his eye and escapes with the rest of his crew tied below fat, woolly rams. Polyphemus because people mistook horseshoe crabs for having one eye. They have ten. All the better to see the ultraviolet rays of the moon with. In 1967, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to three doctors “for their discoveries concerning the primary physiological and chemical visual processes in the eye.” They focused their research on limulus polyphemus.
The ten-eyed horseshoe crabs are nabbed from the sand, lifted to labs where they’re stabbed in the heart and drained of a third of their blood, which is copper-based and milky blue. It’s collected for the limulus amebocyte lysate found there, which detects bacterial contaminants called endotoxins, lethal even in minor amounts, and used to test whether medical equipment is sterile. If ever in your life you have had a vaccine, it’s been touched by the blood of the horseshoe crab. The crabs, so drained, are returned to the sea. Splish splash. Some live.
No splish-splash to be had in the twenty-two seas of the moon, evocatively named as they are: Mare Nectaris, Mare Fecunditatis, Mare Tranquillitatis, Mare Crisium, Mare Humorum. Seas of Nectar, Fecundity, Tranquility, Crises, and Moisture. Twenty-two seas, one ocean, and a bunch of marshes, bays, and lakes (Lake of Death, Lake of Oblivion, Lake of Sorrow, Lake of Dreams). Nothing watery about them, they’re fields of solidified lava from ancient eruptions, iron rich, dark, and dry as bone. Early astronomers, when they looked, thought the dark parts were water.
Here, the ocean wears all its mirrors on its back, they bring the news that comes in the dream, and tonight, the full moon will be reflected and repeated there, millions of moons bouncing back off millions of mirrors. All the old Aprils are in this April, the well-worn egg-shaped orbit swings us back to budding fizz on trees, to hungry suckling tongues, to the blue dusk blush, everything stirring and sticky with renewal. We can’t stare at the sun. It will char our retinas and take our sight. The moon won’t burn, even at its brightest, we can look and look, the way we look at the faces in dreams, which reflect what we bring, with darkness and emptiness behind them. Tonight, step into the milk-blue dim, get softened in the mothlight, and feel the moon pull on all your fluids and juices.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Summer Solstice. Her previous columns for the Daily are Winter Solstice, Sky Gazing, Summer Solstice, Senses of Dawn, and Novemberance.