In the east, a very old moon rises before dawn to greet the sun. And so do I. How happy I am this day to be on the planet for yet another day. Soon, this beautiful crescent moon will disappear from the sky for a day and be reborn in the west as a shimmering splinter very much like this one. I think suddenly of the Ohio Wesleyan students inside, still slumbering.
We are staying for a time in South Dakota at the Rosebud Reservation of the Lakota people, which others mistakenly call the Sioux. Our temporary home is kept by the Lakota Youth Foundation.
We are there to help, as they request and we are able, to further their profound mission to teach their children the old ways and to tell the old stories of the Lakota lest they be lost in the cacophony of modern life.
I can’t do much to help them. For my part, I hope to hear their old stories about the stars and tell them, but it is a poor contribution. Who wants to hear those stories in a tinny, foreign voice detached from the suffering they had to endure or the hard-fought majesty of a long and proud history.
So, I take mop in hand and clean as meticulously as I can the kitchen of the camp where they teach the old ways.
I guiltily enjoy the cloudless skies, day after day, even though a little rain would be welcomed by practically everybody else. I revel in the perfect horizons with no trees or buildings to block the view even as I stare across the hardscrabble ground, a near desert that does not yield its bounty easily. I celebrate the dearth of sky-eradicating streetlights in nearby towns even though I realize that it is poverty and not love of the nighttime sky that motivates their absence.
I share one quality of the old Lakota culture. The rhythm of the moon is as much a part of me as my heart or my spleen. I have measured out my life not in our artificial and unnatural calendar. After all, it has been kluged together over centuries of unnatural struggle to suit the needs of society and not of the humans who live in it.
I measure out my life by the orbit of the moon. I measure it not in months and years, but in moonths. I have watched over the course of a single month, as the ancients watched, the moon’s orbit around the Earth as it moves 13 degrees every day over the 360 degrees around the sky. Its orbit returns it to about the spot where it started. I have thus witnessed the passage of 858 moons.
The cycle of the lunar months tells me when the moon will interfere with the view of the larger, more magnificent sky. During one happy night, the moon disappears from the sky completely. That night we call the night of the new moon. “Get out of the way, old moon,” I say. “Tom wants to see the Milky Way.”
During the week after new moon, Luna is up in the early evening sky and sets a bit later each night. She starts as a thin crescent close to the setting sun and moves her way, day by day, inexorably to the east. At the end of the week, we see a half moon, called the “first-quarter.” It doesn’t set until the night is half over and looks like at half-eaten pizza from the Chernobyl Pizza Co. Deep-sky observers must wait impatiently until the moon sets, and that makes for bleary-eyed activities the next day.
The next phase is miserable indeed. The moon is up in the early evening and stays in the night sky, growing fatter and fatter. During this “gibbous” phase, stargazers stay home and polish their telescopes. At the end of the week, the moon reaches its full, or “second-quarter,” phase. The night of the full moon is great for courtship but lousy for stargazing. The moon rises around sunset and sets around sunrise.
By about a week later, the moon has shrunk again to half its size. The “third-quarter” moon doesn’t rise until the night is half over, so stargazers can get in a little early-evening observing.
Over the next week, the moon continues to shrink to a smaller and smaller crescent and rises later and later until it rises in the east just before sunrise.
The next night is the night of the “new moon,” and the cycle begins again.
In several cultures around the world, the phases of the moon are said to mimic the cycles of pregnancy and birth. The moon lies invisibly close to the sun when it is new. Out of that liaison arises a brand-new baby moon, which swells in size as the weeks progress as a new mother’s belly swells with the new life within it. After the full moon, the mother moon begins a long, protracted childbirth. Finally, the old moon shrinks to a sliver as the birth of the still invisible child is taking place, and the old moon dies in childbirth. A day passes as the invisible, young moon again sleeps in a privacy cloaked in the sun’s brilliance. Soon, the new moon appears in the west, and the cycle begins anew.
And thus I know just how the old moon feels. We must accept the inevitability of the rising and falling of the lunar phases and the inexorable passage of the moonths, just as we must accept the inevitable rhythms of our lives.
During the days we have been on the Rosebud Reservation, the moon has crept closer to the sun every day in morning twilight. That morning it was nearly 27 days old — a sliver of light above the rising sun, an old sliver so thin and tenuous and so close to the horizon that only an unblemished horizon and a keen eye can uncover its aging beauty.
In the east, a very old moon rises before dawn to greet the sun. And so do I. How happy I am this day to see that moon and to be on the planet for yet another day. Soon, that old moon will disappear from the sky for a day and be reborn in the west as a beautiful crescent moon.
I think again of the Ohio Wesleyan students inside, so young, so full of promise. And I am certain that the old, old moon wishes secretly, fervently, that some small sliver of its light will be reborn in the minds and hearts of many new moons yet to come.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.