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:
“Sometimes it is only through things going wrong that we experience the best moments of the day. As I hurry back along the dirt road, resigned to another gas station supper, moonlight begins to take over from the fading sun. The sky is a powder blue and the landscape takes on a similar tinge. An animal lopes across the road in front of me. For a second in the uncertain light I think it must be a desert fox – it looks large enough – but then it pauses in the brush and I see it is a hare; around two foot long, larger than any I have seen in Europe and with black tips to its long ears and a black tail. It must have emerged from its shelter in the shadow of a cactus or rock to begin its nocturnal search for food. It pauses and looks back over its shoulder at me, its weight hunched forward over its front legs and its haunches raised like a racing cyclist, confident in its own ability to turn its nonchalant gait into a burst of speed should I decide to follow. (Desert hares, or black-tailed jackrabbits as they are better known, can reach speeds of forty-five miles per hour). In cultures around the world, from China to Zambia to the Great Lakes, hares are associated with the moon, so it is hard not to take its presence as some sort of encouragement on my journey. In Native American legends Michabo, or the Great Manitou, is the best known of mythical heroes. He acquired the distinctive black-tipped ears that I am looking at now when he was singed attempting to steal fire from man, narrowly escaping ending up in the cooking pot himself.
Cordes Junction is an average American fast-food hell. I sit at a plastic table in a forecourt with trucks rushing past on the highway amid the smell of gasoline. A couple of tables down a dangerously overweight family are eating next to the trash bin that has long-since overflowed on to the asphalt. There is little to detain me and after a few minutes I am bumping back down the track to Arcosanti. Guest accommodation is a line of cabins on a dirt road below the main development, their front walls mainly glass, looking over a small, dry river wash. The moon is fully up and shining directly into my room. I seem to be the only guest; no other lights spill into the canyon and I am loath to turn one on. At the same time, I need to write up some of my notes. I try sitting on a chair outside the door in the moonlight with my laptop, but quickly realize this is a stupid idea. The screen robs me of my night vision; when I look up, the moon rides in a black sky devoid of stars. In addition, every moth, bug and flying creature in the vicinity is attracted by the computer’s white-blue glow, and is soon crawling all over it, giving my notes a close, insect edit. My words have never found such an attentive audience. The text looks as if it is fragmenting, the letters detaching themselves from the lines, walking about and then taking off, back into the ether, watched by their companions who remain glued to the light”.
(c) James Attlee
To order Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, outside North America, click here.
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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.