In her monthly column The Moon in Full, Nina MacLaughlin illuminates humanity’s long-standing lunar fascination. Each installment is published in advance of the full moon.
Not long ago at the big museum across the river, a little lost, I ended up in the Egyptian realm. I entered a closet-size space, its high limestone walls carved with hieroglyphs. Vultures, tall dogs, fish, bare feet with high arches, serpents, urns, owls, half-moons, eyes. These symbols, familiar and unfamiliar at once, arising, like all symbols, all myths, all language, out of our confusion and our fear, our grasping for sense and pattern, our wonder. “Wonder is ignorance that is aware of itself as ignorance,” Robert P. Harrison writes in an essay called “Toward a Philosophy of Nature.” Standing in the museum, I felt the charge, the fluttering, stirring hush that certain places bring when you can sense a long-gone presence—not ghosts, exactly, but some residue of human energy and effort. I felt the hands with their chisels, the dust and pressure, and line by line the shapes coming into being. Rising up those walls, the signs of our inexhaustible efforts to understand and make ourselves understood.
A quivering feeling between my ribs and shoulder blades—this is where that hush registers in me. I felt it also, years ago, in a wrecked stone church in County Wexford, Ireland. We’d left the village and walked to a field. Thick mist hung low, softening edges and beading on our eyelashes. In the deep, heathery November light that I love: a tilting fence way off, brown cows on the other side of it, heads bent over the tuffets of damp grass, that saturated Irish green you read about, even at this late moment in the year. In the air the smell of peat smoke, bricks of decayed plant matter pulled from bogs and burned in hearths, a tangier, higher-pitched smell than wood smoke. We were quiet as we moved toward the church’s wreckage in the corner of the field, up a gentle slope. “I played here as a boy,” my companion said. “It was ruins then, too.”
Moss softened the stone. Lichen, almost glowing, did the slow work of turning it to sand. I felt bodies gathered there in congregation. Time moved in all directions; a shivery heat reached in and touched me. No roof, just endless gray sky, the sun up there somewhere, and the moon as well, as they were in ancient Egypt, in seventeenth-century Ireland, as they were long before there were words for things like time and love and fear.
You know this hushed feeling, too, maybe, your body aware of the human scenes preceding yours, the others before, with their beating hearts, their laughter, their thighs, and the others to come after, into the vacuum of your eventual inexistence. This occasional experience has made me curious: What would it feel like to arrive in a place without a human history? No ghosts, no gardens, no ruins, no smell of smoke from chimneys, nowhere to buy a packet of nuts, no knob to turn for a glass of water. What did Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin feel when they arrived on the moon?
Were they focused, I wonder, on the rock they stood upon? Its dust, its night light, its contours, crevices, shadows, the way their bodies felt bouncing in their spacesuits? Or did they gaze out toward the planet where they were born? Somewhere, way off, their shoes in rows in the closet dark, their mugs quiet in the cabinet, shirts folded in the drawers. Somewhere a river one of them threw rocks in as a boy kept moving. Somewhere light played in the eyes of the people they loved. They were further from home than any human had ever been. The charge they must have felt.
“Aching for the unknown is our nobility: a marvelous striving without aim,” the folklorist, poet, and hiker Hans Jürgen von der Wense writes in A Shelter for Bells. Yet there is an aim: to land in someplace new, press up against our limits. The vibrant flutter I felt in the ruins, and looking up the wall of the hieroglyphs, is erotic—it touches the storeplace of the deepest vitality. And it’s antithetical to language. Awe is mute.
“Magnificent desolation,” said Aldrin on the moon.
Nature reminds us of eternity, and therefore of death. Everything is here when we arrive, in constant motion. Tidal swells, grass in the wind, robin on the poplar, sunset, eclipse. And we sense it will all go on, a party that does not end with our departure. The anguish! And the reassurance. The distant moon and stars remind us of our smallness, our impermanence, and also how alive we are right now.
I spent some days in the mountains recently, out of sight of road, house, chimney smoke. Instead: sky, trees, moss, rock. At night: stars, moon. I felt moments of fear—these mountains are more powerful than I am—but there was a trail to follow, a warm sleeping bag in my pack, dried mango and jerky when I was hungry.
Michael Collins was the Apollo 11 astronaut who did not trot around on the moon’s surface. He stayed in the spaceship and traveled solo to the shadowed other side: “I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.”
I am it.
How to return from that? How to express what no other human being has ever experienced? I walked into a crumbled church and felt my soul caressed by time and long-dead human hands. It turned me on. Hard to explain. When Collins moved into the moon’s shadow, did the “God knows what” touch his soul?
This is a paradox of travel, of wandering and coming home: our sense of the world is widened, we are embraced by the new, yet opened to how much is the same. Go as far away as you can from what you know: different smells, colors, sounds of syllables, different songs, dances, prayers, tastes, light. And still, always, people eat and sleep and try to love while gravity enacts its pull, and there’s the moon. Returning can be the hardest part of the journey. People say, How was your trip? And you say, Good, I had a great time, the mountains were—there was this shaft of light one morning that—this old man with a skull ring sat next to me on the bus and—and your companion’s eyes have glazed; you know they’re elsewhere. Your life was changed by a shaft of light and you cannot explain it. In this way, after being taken up in the wide hands of the world, we are alone.
That must be truer still for those who travel to the moon. What was it like? Questions from everyone who hasn’t been and will never go. “Returning to Earth brings with it a great sense of heaviness, and a need for careful movement,” Aldrin said, speaking, I have to believe, about more than gravity. Post-moon, parts of his life collapsed. He wrote of depression, alcoholism, divorce. How amazing to have this sublime view of the planet, to touch the glowing moon. And how isolating. “Every journey begins as an infatuation and ends like a love,” von der Wense writes. “And what we have gained is a dark mark chalked on our heart, which has grown wider by an inch.” That dark mark, chalked with moonrock on the heart, widens it, yes, and leaves a scar.
Here on earth it is November. It gets late earlier now. Day routs the shadows and night gathers them back in with broad black-feathered wings. The Beaver Moon glows, reminding us that its longevity is not ours to know. But in secret heated moments we can feel the throb of our aliveness, sensing the aliveness that came before and will come after, the hushed mingling of souls, marking the heart that tries and tries to speak our ageless and ongoing bewilderment.
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.
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