There is little struggle in forgetting the moon. Its empty face so effortlessly unheeded. Its phases and temperaments so ably ignored. Our nights now brightened by the light of so many other pale and soulless surfaces, one could suggest we’ve outgrown the need for a moon. For radiance nor mystery are we compelled to consult its rough features. Though I may, on occasion, without intent or interest encounter the thing, vague and ghostly at midday or sagging in full flesh at midnight, it’s remarkably easy to never, in any other moment, imagine the moon. And why must I? Are not its movements, its regular swelling and fading, so totally predictable, so certain, that even the most astute astrologer could perform her labor without ever opening a window, without ever consorting with the real and turbulent moon? This rock. Born from the random collision of the proto earth and some passing foreign body, its very existence is postscript. Accident. The moon is, forever and simply, the moon. The dead, silent wife of the world.
Indifference like this is only newly won. In ages past there was no escaping the moon. No matter what myth, faith, or spiritualism you subscribed to, some stain of the moon’s glow could be found there. The Luyia tribe of Kenya knew the moon to be the older brother of the sun. The Inuits of Greenland believed that after the sun goddess Malina was raped by her brother, the moon, Malina cut off her breasts, threw them at his feet, and demanded that if he liked them so much he should eat them. European Christians of the Middle Ages believed that in Genesis, when Cain killed his brother Abel and God banished him to forever wander “the land of Nod, east of Eden,” this meant the moon. The face of the man in the moon was, to their telling, the face of humankind’s first murderer.
Although these old cosmic myths were often fantastic or grotesque, they also reflect a certain failure of imagination, a creativity limited by the dynamics of human drama and emotion. Unfortunately, this is simply how we operate. Putting ourselves where we do not belong. Asserting our identity wherever we please. Giving human form to the most improbable of things. Inventing plot out of a literal vacuum.
Admittedly, a casual review of the moon’s long cultural history like this amounts to not much. Though more than ten thousand words in length, the Wikipedia entry for “Moon” can provide only an impression, a knowledge just deep enough to suggest our current impoverishment. In the absence of our own living and vivid folklores of the moon we seem to have lost access to something elemental.
In a fit, perhaps, of another latter-day ailment, we’d taken a boat some miles into the quiet of Namakan Lake. Eventually we made land on one of the many small islands found there in the area preserved as Voyageurs National Park. In Nebraska (a full day’s drive away) it had still been soggy late summer. But after passing the northern border of Iowa we’d driven steadily into autumn—first the showy maples blazing the backyards of St. Paul, then the shaggy hickories around Duluth taking on rust, and at last, the endless acres of birch in pure gold. Cloistered finally on the island, the transition was complete. Along the entire watery boarder between Ontario and Minnesota, every leaf that had any intention of making a show of its dying was now fulfilling this goal.
Now that we were finally planted firmly to a place, rather than throttling across it at blind speed, the detail I found myself more interested in was the lichen. Generations of lichen in so many species, tumored onto stones, the limbs of trees, unbothered soil. Even walking barefoot across the ground felt like a crime, leaving a trail of flat prints through a coral reef in miniature. But after all the hurry we’d gone through to get there, all the bluster and gas and parking lot sandwiches, it was nourishing to take in something so small—alive but in a way so subtle, so slow.
Other than the leaves, and the lichen, and the walleye fishing, and the coolers of beer, and the frost fringed mornings, and the pinewood campfires, and the sight of an occasional black bear swimming between the islands, we had come for the northern lights. The lights, though, failed to show up as promised. As consolation, we were given the moon.
Minnesota’s flatness, and its thousands of lakes scattered like so many waiting mirrors of the sky, make for ideal moonrise conditions. Though at home, surrounded by books and websites and Netflix queues, I have no trouble getting along without a moon (days and weeks will pass without ever seeing it), but removed to an island so totally blacked out from everything else, it became unavoidable. From the very first night, the moon demanded an essential place in the evening’s rituals. Making the fire, cleaning the fish, cooking the food, all done while constantly annotating the moon’s condition: Going to be a bright one tonight. Looking more purple now. She’ll be up soon.
This was how it went. And when the moon finally did break the horizon, the things we said to each other became even more dumb, more clumsy. Whoa. Shit. Jesus. And though we loved it in the best way we knew, filling our cell phones with so many pixilated photos, each more unsatisfying than the last, it seemed that maybe we were simply myth poor. Wasn’t this the point at which stories and worlds and gods were made? Could we think, even here, of nothing? Maybe the light brought by centuries of science has simply left precious little room for us to play in the shadows. Was there, I wondered, a way to appreciate the moon for what it actually was—a profoundly beautiful piece of space trash—but also as something else. Something unknowable. Something attuned to a silence and agelessness so deep that in its tide every human story is exposed as absurdity, revealed for its fleeting and fundamental smallness.
One more thing I learned on Wikipedia: the measurement of a surface’s reflective radiance is known as its albedo. The albedo of the moon’s face is 0.13. In full sun it shines only slightly brighter than the surface of worn asphalt. If anyone feels like giving shape to a new myth of the moon, one that might ferry us alive into the darkness of wherever it is we’ve been banished, I say we start there.
PATRICK MAINELLI lives and works in Omaha, Nebraska. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, New Ohio Review, Sport Literate, The New Territory, and elsewhere. His work was twice named among other “Notable Essays” in Robert Atwan’s Best American Essays series, and has been featured on the Public Radio program “Living on Earth.”