Walking with the Moon
Matt Gaw has a lunar appointment at Covehithe
The sun is going down when I reach Covehithe beach, its last light gilding the tinny Anderson shelters of the pig farm and causing the clouds above the sandy, marram grass-spiked bluffs to burn and blush. The sky itself looks like it is splitting, like an oil, or an expensive vinegar stored too long. The heavy sediments of the dark settle, while above it the colours shift from red through to pinks, yellows and white. In the highest reaches of the atmosphere, where the sun still shines from beyond the earth’s curve, the sky is a brittle, icy blue. A plane is flying almost directly up, its contrail a thread that sews the colours together as it jets from the new, rising dark of night to the old light of day.
I check my watch and turn towards the sea. It is almost time. She should be here any minute. Three tankers are making their way along the darkening sill of the horizon, the sound of their engines hidden by the suck and slap of waves on shingle and the clamour of seabirds readying to roost behind me. I stand, waiting, zipping my coat against the gathering chill. And then, I see her. The moon. First a pale fingernail in the wash and oil-fug of the tankers and then slowly growing, until this halfsunken mound of reflective light gradually tears away from the sea. Within minutes the moon is up, hanging like a great, cratered kite. Although, technically, full moon is tomorrow – when cloud and rain are due to cover the skies – to the naked eye this waxing gibbous looks full. The seas, large basaltic plains formed by volcanic activity but once mistaken for water, are all visible. The eyes of the Sea of Showers and the Sea of Serenity. The nose of Seething Bay and the openmouthed surprise of the Sea of Clouds and the Sea of Knowledge.
The whole face of the moon is pinched-pink, a result of particles in the atmosphere scattering the light, but it looks as if she is blushing with the effort of her steep climb. What was it that D H Lawrence wrote? “And who has seen the moon, who has not seen. Her rise from out the chamber of the deep, Flushed and grand and naked, as from the chamber.” With my outstretched hand, I measure the moon’s increasing height, watching her creep from thumb-tip to knuckle. Thin clouds shutter the light, blunt the sharpness of her edges, until the earth hoists her higher, unwinding water vapour like orange pith.
Until tonight, I’m not sure if I’ve seen the moon rise. In fact, most of my encounters have been by pure chance, glimpses while out walking or camping. A fingernail moon while putting out the bins, a milky first quarter while bellowing for the cat. But for the last two months I have been consciously following the moon, charting its changes and slow movements in my notebook. My drawings, crude sketches to mark the wax and wane, the crescent and the gibbous, underscored by wobbling lines to represent a daily path across the sky.
On the surface it could be
seen as a pointless act. After all, a quick internet search, will generate more information about the moon’s path with greater speed and accuracy. But for me, it was about more than that, it was an exercise in reconnecting. About rediscovering the magic of moon’s calendar, becoming more in tune to the earth’s turn and leaning in towards the orbit of the seasons. I’ve been surprised by how natural it has felt too, how utterly human. As if each pen stroke, each cycle of the 29 marks that makes up the synodic month, echoed through the ages, was driven by the same impulse that saw our earliest ancestors nick bone, carve stone and paint on cave walls.
Even if our connection to the moon has been largely lost, obscured by a focus on the glare of day and dimmed by electricity that means the moon is no longer a ‘parish lantern’ to guide us in the dark, its importance, both to us and to the natural world remains in language. Words smoothed by tongue and teeth still tie the earth’s celestial sister to us. The Wolf Moon of January, when wolves, lupines, moon-beasts, would howl in hunger. The Snow Moon, The Worm Moon, when the casts of worms could be seen in the thawed earth. In spring and summer, the nights are warmed by the Strawberry Moon, the Rose Moon, the Hot Moon, the Thunder Moon. I guess that’s another reason for coming here tonight. Tomorrow’s will be the Sturgeon Moon, a time when these large fish could once be readily caught in the American great lakes. But importantly, it is the last full moon of summer.
I walk south as the twilights succeed each other, moving from civil, to nautical, to astronomical, the true beginning of night. The lights of Southwold, visible behind the crumbling jut of scalloped, wave-chewed cliffs, flicker orange. Its lighthouse offering a white, winked pulse. Higher in the sky I can see The Summer Triangle of Deneb, Vega and Altair, pointing to Mars, with Saturn and Jupiter to its right. There too is the loose W of Cassiopeia, a dot-to-dot peregrine locked in a perpetual stoop towards earth. But I can hardly tear my eyes away from the moon. Now high, travelling towards the meridian, she is as pale as a pigeon egg, brightening the land and casting thick, inky shadows. On water the moon creates an avenue of light, a slick of moondust, shivering with the waves from horizon to shore.
Feeling a sudden urge to follow it, I strip and wade along the moon’s path, watching the light gather and pool around my legs. The cold brown slap of the North Sea now moon-scalded and bright. I break into a ragged breast stroke, the temperature tightening my chest.
Autumn is close. I can feel it in the bone-chill of the water, in the softness of the light. In the tidal breath of the moon.
Matt Gaw is editor of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust magazine. For more information about SWT events, including night walks, see suffolkwildlifetrust.org