Moon a night away from full. The coyotes on the ridgetop glimpse it rising a few moments before the wood-splitter down in his valley.
They set up a yapping and rollicking that halts him in mid-stroke, and only then, leaning on his ax, does he look up and see the cause of the frenzy—loud, and bright, and round, and white as a balled-up gym sock—Old Whatcha-ma-call-it.
The great bald pate of the moon… The lashless eye of the moon… Clock without hands, a bone, a boat, a shell, a stone, a mirror, a window, a frosted apple, a tall glass of water…a nickel-ante poker chip…a piñata the Earth keeps swinging at, year after year.... Whatever it is, we've only got one of them—it’ll never go nameless.
Moonlight softens a city, frosts a field, spangles the ocean. In the Everglades, it’s always peeking around curtains; in the Badlands of South Dakota, it’s the mouth of the whole world’s cave. What’s it like where you live? The same phases, the same relentless, almost-perceptible speed across the sky—but in each place, to each eye, a different connotation, like the same word spoken in every possible tone of voice.
In this woods, this particular night, it speaks in a hoarse whisper, a Tom Sawyer half wanting to get caught sneaking back into his own house, shinning up the drainpipe. When it gets to the zenith, the ridgepole, it seems to pause there and take stock of what’s laid out below.
Snow still lies two feet deep, and when the moon’s high, it lights the woods from the inside, from the ground up. At the pond’s edge, every tree is glazed white as a birch, but ten steps in, the maze of shadows seems impenetrable, a tangle of spiderweb—as if you stood inside of an enormous loom, and your every step were the crazy crossroads of warp and weft, the pattern lost, or too vast to pick out. Looking up through the threads, you can see the flying shuttle, its gleaming metal tip pulling one shadow through another.
Night is a great equalizer. It becomes difficult to see depth, so that images pile up on top of each other, crowding out the spaces between, as they do in binoculars. Have you noticed how a ball thrown to you in the dark always arrives before you expect it? Or how every tree seems suddenly to have a human shape, every rock a gargoyle face? These phenomena are actually one and the same: light spreads things out, separates one form cleanly from another, and without it, space itself shrinks a little, and one object is woven into another. Metaphors get mixed into stiff drinks.
A person can’t help feeling nervous out in the dark! The soles of his feet start sweating, and his mind races through possibilities. Since he can’t see, he’s sure that he must be being seen, and every glint of light in his path turns into one eye of the local bobcat who never shows his face. Come daylight, all that’s left of him is tracks.
This time of night, nothing has shape enough to hold its name. No wonder the night-walker looks up at the moon whenever he can, and puts all his eggs into her one basket. Whatever that piñata holds—not much air, not much color, not much life—I’m willing to bet you a nickel that she keeps coming round to see what we’ll call her next, even if she’s only half looking.
Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer's Almanac. He is the co-founder of the Harriers, a club for young birders throughout New Hampshire (nhyoungbirders.org), and as a seasonal naturalist for the New Hampshire Audubon during the fall hawk migration, his writing appears on the blog (www.hawkcount.org) for Pack Monadnock Raptor Migration Observatory.