The moon’s many faces


Tom Burns - Stargazing



As the years pass, I find myself awakening at night and abruptly remembering those peak moments when the stars shone like diamond dust from the dark, dark places away from the cities. Here is one that came to mind recently at 3 AM:

The full moon rose large against the stark vastness of the Granite Mountain near Reno, Nevada. The moon’s old man’s face look puzzled that night, as if he were asking, “What in heaven’s name are you doing on a dry lake bed in the middle of the Black Rock Desert?”

I wasn’t there for stargazing, strictly speaking, but wherever I go, stargazing seems to travel with me. During the daylight hours, I had launched the largest amateur rocket of my life that afternoon, and now I was waiting to catch a glimpse of the full moon rising over the desert.

And rise it did, blood red against the deepening blue of evening twilight.

Afterward, Fran, the owner, manager, and only employee, so far as I could tell, of my middle-of-nowhere motel was in a talkative mood, so I asked her what she saw in the moon.

She told me that she never saw the man in the moon. She saw a woman, her eyes filled with tears, her mascara running down her face.

That’s the way it is with the moon. Everybody sees something different in the dark shadows that cloud her brilliant visage.

The literalists among us see nothing representational at all. The moon’s dark splotches, called maria, are the results of giant impacts on the lunar surface when the moon was young. Gigantic hunks of rock and metal slammed into the moon and left giant craters. Those craters filled in with liquid rock that bubbled to the surface. Over millions of years, those oceans of liquid rock hardened to remarkably vast, flat planes.

Many of the rest of us see the Man in the Moon. He comes from an old story told by English parents to their children.

It seems that many years ago, an old man went out on a Sunday to gather firewood. As he was trudging home with his burden, he met a handsome man dressed in his best Sunday clothes. The man chided the woodcutter for working on the Sabbath. The old man replied, “Sunday on earth or Monday in heaven. It’s all the same to me.”

“Then bear your burden forever!” replied the mysterious stranger. With a wave of his hand, he transported the unfortunate transgressor to the moon. We see him to his day as a reminder to keep the Sabbath holy.

Like Fran, South Seas islanders see a woman in the moon. Sometimes, she forms the clouds out of her brilliance. She is forever pursued by her husband, the sun, but they feel each other’s caresses only on the rare occasions when they are brought together during what we ignorant modern folks call a solar eclipse.

As the moon blocks the sun, the activities of the two celestial bodies are shrouded in darkness. Suffice it to say that the sun’s corona becomes briefly visible, and there is no greater glory visible to human eyes. Also, a few stars often appear during the relative darkness of an eclipse. And thus it is that the mother moon gives birth to the stars.

Personally, I’ve always seen a rabbit in the lunar visage, and I am not alone. According to an old Celtic tradition, the bunny in the moon is none other than the character we call the Easter Bunny.

My favorite story about the heavenly bunny comes from the Hindu tradition of India.

The god Sakkara one day transformed himself into a starving holy man and went into the forest begging alms of the various animals. He came up empty handed until a rabbit offered the only sustenance he had, the grass he was eating. The holy man replied that he did not eat grass, but some roasted rabbit might save him from starvation.

Without hesitation, the rabbit jumped into the fire. Just before the flames consumed the altruistic bunny, the fire was magically extinguished, and the god appeared in his true form. He took the rabbit in his arms, and drew its image on the moon to remind us forever of this grand irony at the center of Hindu philosophy: If we are selfless, all things will come to us.

We all have our own mythologies. I see etched in the moon signs of incredible violence. The moon is etched by billions of years of impacts as it has been sandblasted by micrometeorites and nearly crushed by the explosive collisions that caused its craters and those dark markings that others see as bunnies and men.

And thus I will always see Fran’s face, sandblasted with care and nearly crushed by sorrow.

The next full moon is Oct. 16. Go out and look at her bright beauty and see what face you will.

Perhaps you live in a joyous place, and you will see a joyous face. Perhaps, like Fran, you live in the desert near Reno, that land of broken dreams. She looked up at the worn, pitted countenance of the mother moon and saw in it her own burden of suffering.

Look, but be careful. The face you see might be your own.

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Tom Burns

Stargazing