During the COVID lockdowns, while the cinemas, concert halls, and theaters were shuttered, one show never went dark: the moon. I’ve become a devoted fan, marking the lunar phases on my calendar and counting the days to each month’s full celestial performance. Moon-viewing has proved to be the perfect pandemic activity. It’s free, it takes place outdoors, and the moon, at 240,000 miles away, is socially distant.
You might think that prolonged moon-gazing would be mind-numbing — or on frigid nights just plain numbing. But the full moon, I’ve discovered, is like a veteran actor: When it ascends the stage, it hits its mark, while never delivering the same performance twice.
Some nights, the moon comes swathed in feathery clouds. Other nights, it appears stark naked, illuminated by its own spotlight. And even at 4.5 billion years old, the moon is still capable of surprises. In the past year, there have been blue moons — the second of two full moons occurring in the same calendar month; super moons — technical name, perigee syzygy; and micro moons, which occur when the moon reaches its farthest point from Earth during its yearly orbit, making it appear smaller and dimmer in the sky.
Tonight — early Friday morning — insomniacs and early risers of New England who look west beginning at 2:18 a.m. will be treated to the longest partial lunar eclipse in 580 years. (Bostonians might set their alarm clocks for 4:02 a.m., when the eclipse will peak in our sky. Late sleepers can catch the last of it at 5:47 a.m.) Over the course of 3 hours 28 minutes and 23 seconds, the moon will slip in and out of Earth’s shadow. Sunlight filtering through Earth’s atmosphere will give the moon a red cast, making it a blood moon. (Or, for Nick Drake fans, a pink moon — though the November full moon is technically referred to as a beaver moon, which is unlikely to inspire songwriters.)
Moon-viewing is an ancient practice, one that connects us to our prehistoric past. Ever since the Late Stone Age, humans have been tracking its movements, carving lunar calendars on animal bones and pieces of stone. The moon you glance up at tonight, and perhaps snap and post to Instagram, is the same moon that cast its glow upon our ancestors while they sat around their fires. In the history of our species, the moon may be the single most gazed-upon object — the common target of our pensive late-night stares.
Across the millennia, perhaps no group has found in the moon more cause for enchantment than poets. According to legend, the Tang dynasty poet Li Bai was so enamored of the moon that he drowned after leaping from his boat to embrace its rippling reflection on the Yangtze River. So much verse has been written about the moon — that “lozenge of love” (Philip Larkin), that “owl’s eye” (Gwendolyn Brooks), that “strange white goddess imprisoned in her ash” (Robert Lowell) — we should pity the contemporary poet grasping for something new to say about it. “How to write an old-fashioned poem to the moon,” Rita Dove has asked. “That luminous orb so swaddled in myth, ensnared in the silvery web of its own symbolism?”
As cliché as the moon may seem, we should cherish our time with it. We should gaze at its gleaming face as often as we can. In the coming decades, our nearest heavenly body could be irrevocably changed. NASA has announced an ambitious plan to establish a permanent base on the moon by 2028 — the first step in human colonization of the lunar surface. In my darker moments, I imagine a day when the moon’s cratered terrain is studded with glittering casinos and theme parks. No wonder the moon is steadily drifting away from Earth (albeit at a rate of 4 centimeters a year, the same speed at which our fingernails grow).
For now, whatever the future may hold, I’ll keep spreading my flannel blanket on cold grass, lying flat on my back, and enjoying the moon’s ever-changing show.
Will Dowd is a writer and artist in the Boston area. He is the author of “Areas of Fog,” a collection of essays, and “The Lunar Dispatch,” a newsletter about the moon.