I’m not one to sit out in the cold, especially at night, but I made an exception for last month’s lunar eclipse. The last time the lunar eclipse coincided with the winter solstice, in 1648, Gallileo “was languishing under house arrest for suggesting the Earth circled the sun,” as Slate magazine put it, so I felt I owed the occasion some respect.
I awoke just after 3 a.m. to the sound of the alarm going off, with the wind gusting in the background. I dreaded the idea of going out and sitting in the cold, but I bundled up well, retrieved a comfortable, padded beach chair, and went out to my driveway, where there’s a clear view of the northwest sky. The chair is meant for sunning, so it put me in at the right angle of recline for comfortable moon gazing.
The full moon was already the orangish shade that characterizes the onset of a full eclipse. I was warm in my many layers, so it wasn’t all that unpleasant being out. It was clear and quiet other than the gusting wind, and stars were in abundance. As I watched the achingly slow disappearance of the moon, I thought of how long this process had been going on, how recent we humans are as witnesses to it, and how the full moon so captures our imagination even without the drama the eclipse adds.
I thought about the many times a full moon had made events in my life more memorable. When I was a kid, the full moon factored into so many things―from extending the play of Kick the Can until well after sunset on a summer night, to turning a benign forest into a clawing horror worthy of Ichabod Crane on Halloween.
I had a disturbing dream for many years of a vast, lonely evergreen forest swaying in a howling wind under a full moon. Undoubtedly this came from some of my first memories, when my family lived in Germany. We visited the Black Forest, a dark, beautiful, profoundly mysterious place that I believed quite capable of housing those magical and sometimes violent characters of the fairy tales that I was read at bedtime.
Using my binoculars, I checked the progress of the eclipse. The Earth’s shadow had covered the moon, and the night had gone dark. With not much to look at, my mind drifted back to moonlit nights on the Northern Plains.
As a young journalist, I got the urge to go west, arriving in Livingston, Mont., in the dead of winter. While lobbying the local publisher for a photography position, I worked odd jobs to make ends meet. With any leftover money, I’d put as much gas in the car as I could and drive through Paradise Valley toward Yellowstone Park. When half the gas was gone, I’d turn around and drive back.
Sometimes I made it all the way to the park, but even if I didn’t, the view of that aptly named valley ― with the rugged peaks of the Gallatin and Absaroka mountains jutting up on either side and the Yellowstone River rushing through it ― made the trip well worth it. Some cows and elk dotted the landscape, but people and structures were few and far between.
I ended up on a paper in Bozeman, but before I left Livingston I had the great pleasure of seeing the full moon light up Paradise Valley. I had made it all the way to the park that day, seeing bighorn sheep lounging in pastures near the entrance. Inside the park, frosty bison with icicles hanging from their beards mingled their breath with the steam from the nearby hotpots in the Yellowstone, producing a frozen mist over the great beasts’ heads. As night approached, I reluctantly headed back to Livingston, but as the full moon rose, I found myself repeatedly stopping to take in the spectacular panorama of the moonlit valley and peaks.
I saw the full moon over Paradise Valley again the next summer, when a friend invited me to a celebration of the bar reopening in the little town of Pray. I spent most of the time outside visiting while admiring the moon as it hovered over nearby Emigrant Peak and was reflected in the Yellowstone River. It made a great summer night perfect.
Coming back to the night at hand, the eclipse was ending. The moon was slipping out from behind the Earth’s shadow, and the night was becoming bright again. I began thinking of more recent moonlit nights, here in Rappahannock County. I’ve most enjoyed the moon here when I’ve been out in a meadow filled with fireflies on a summer night. Their twinkling over moonlit, misty meadows produces another kind of magic.
As the eclipse finally ended and the night was once again lit up with the revealed moon’s full reflected light, I said goodnight to that friend who had made so many nights, in so many places and seasons, a special memory.