For countless millennia mankind lived in step with the cycles of the moon, planting crops, setting out on journeys, wooing lovers and gathering harvests according to its celestial clockwork. It is little more than a century since this connection was decisively broken. Now more and more of us live in realms of perpetual day, in which twenty-four-hour illumination all but obliterates the majesty of the night sky. Nocturne is a journey  in search of what has been lost.

A strange cast of characters accompany the author on his quest: artists, poets, novelists, politicians, astronomers and musicians. Unexpected connections emerge between them, spanning time and nationality. Each has been inspired or troubled at different times by the moon. Its influence and its light resonate through their work and their work in turn plays a part in shaping the course of my journey, reaching beyond the confines of every-day experience into a parallel, moonlit dimension experienced while the rest of the world sleeps.

The search for moonlight leads from the streets of the author’s own neighborhood to a Buddhist temple near Kyoto and into the Arizona desert. The soundtrack to these wanderings is as diverse as their geography. The midnight song of a mockingbird in Brooklyn; the grumbling of a Japanese volcano at a steaming, sacred spring; a Beethoven sonata, bounced off the lunar surface.

Most bizarrely of all, a haunting image of an elderly man standing in front of a map of the moon leads to a solitary prison cell in Berlin.

Here is a short extract from the book:

Beyond the dry part of the beach, where the sea seldom reaches, the sand has been shaped into hummocks and runnels by the retreating tide. It is easier to walk here. Ghostly wading birds are making use of what light remains to chase crabs that have been brought in with the seaweed. They glow quietly in the shadows and then make little runs, their heads jabbing; occasionally one is blown off its feet in the teeth of the wind and tilts wildly this way and that in the air before coming to land again. I can hear the sea’s roar now, although it is still far off. Without warning the moon emerges, at first ringed with haze and then clear, oval-shaped, tinted with lemon, a few days short of full. Each hillock of sand is now an alp, capped with reflected light. The sea is black and silver; at the tideline I watch it running in along the lines it has carved for itself, at ninety degrees to the shore, the first channel flowing left to right, the next right to left. I squat down in the moon’s path to get as close to eye level as I can with the tide it is sending me. The wind is stippling the incoming fingers of water as it runs and its surface breaks up into a thousand shards of light. I can see the waves themselves beyond the shallows, heaving and crashing, slopes of jet topped by foam. I look behind me, a little nervously; I need the moon to alert me to where the water is headed, seeking out its circuitous route inland, betrayed by its shimmer – I don’t want to have to wade home. Turning away from land once again, I see that the moonlight has made a road across the sea, catching the phosphorescent foam of each wave top and leaving the valleys between them in deep shadow.

This is the scene that so many painters have tried to capture, competing with each other to best portray the nocturnal beauty of the Bay of Salerno, say, or of a Venetian lagoon. Studying the original makes me more aware both of their art and their shortcomings. I have seen a small Van Gogh landscape in which the leaves of poplars seemed to tremble in a breeze, but I have never yet met a painting that could evoke this stinging, tangy wind, the waves’ thunder, or the ever-shifting drama of this sky. I walk for half an hour or so at the advancing sea’s edge before I decide the time has come to turn back if I want to make it home without mishap. As I leap a newly filled channel I notice something at my feet. It is a large jellyfish, washed in by the rough seas of the night before, glowing quietly on the sand like a translucent crystal skull. I prod it gently with my toe and find it surprisingly firm and resilient. Bending closer I can see the moon reflected in its mysterious, pale body, the same moon whose gravitational pull has delivered it here, like a message from the stars. I am not an expert in the identification of such creatures, but from the transparency and shape of its body, or bell, it could be a Moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita). Their sting is said to be mild, a mere kiss from the unexpected. I hope it is alive, but have no way of knowing. If I had time I would stay and wait for the tide to reach it; I would like to see it lift off once more, like a spaceship heading home (perhaps then I could establish its identity – Moon Jellyfish only have short tentacles). But the encircling tide is reaching out its arms to enfold me; I don’t want to be lassoed by its embrace. So I turn my back on both the moon and its messenger, and climb the cliff path back to the electric, street-lit world.

(c) James Attlee

To order Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, outside North America, click here.

To order inside North America, click here.

Via the menu at the top of this page you can go to a selection of photos taken during the writing of the book, click through to works of art mentioned in the text, read reviews and articles, submit your own stories about moonlight, check the date of author events, listen to radio shows and click through to the CfDS (Campaign for Dark Skies) site.

You can also read about my other books, Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey, and Gordon Matta-Clark, The Space Between.

I am  happy to hear from you via email or Twitter (see Contact and Feedback). I am particularly interested in your comments regarding your own experience of moonlight, light pollution or the moon in art and literature. I will respond to questions and I welcome your comments.

2 Responses to Nocturne

  1. David Crawford says:

    Super book of course. I like the discussions about wasteful and crappy night lighting, relative to the natural night. I was founder and Exec Dir of International Dark-Sky Association for many years and an astronomer for many more. Now active in efforts in the lighting industry to get better (include none) night lighting, effective and efficient. Would like to quote from your book in some of my writings. Hope you agree.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for your comments David. I do think wasteful and misdirected lighting is a big issue. Ironically, a local sports ground has recently erected floodlights that shine into the back of my house, erasing all darkness before 11.00pm. In principle I am fine with the idea of quotes from my book helping the cause… I will email you