The night sky above the Key Peninsula isn’t always clear.
We enjoy about 140 nights a year that are partly cloudy or better. The rest remind us that the KP isn’t West Texas and you won’t find a McDonald Observatory here, although there is a two-seat UFO boarding gate on a Lackey Road rooftop.
Not taking clear skies for granted, we look up and admire the stars and the moon on nights whenever we can see them.
In winter, snuggled under the familiar wet blanket of low clouds, there’s nothing to see other than the garish colors of city lights reflected down off them. Winter stargazing is a treat you don’t get to enjoy every night, so when the north breeze is cold and dry enough to clear away the clouds, the surprise of seeing Orion in the southern sky is something to stand still for.
Our distant ancestors, who followed the paleo diet (not because they were food faddists, but because they had no pizza, chicken tenders or Twinkies), were knowledgeable astronomers. There is regular news of yet another prehistoric ruin oriented toward the celestial paths of the sun, moon and stars.
Not long ago, Scottish archaeologists unearthed a 10,000-year-old moon tracking installation in an Aberdeenshire field. Until someone finds a site even earlier than the mesolithic lunar observatory, it has the best claim to being the oldest human calendar.
Mount Rainier is visible from so much of our almost-island Arcadia that we can’t help but notice it — unless you watch TV or argue with strangers on Facebook all day.
“The Mountain” has its role in sky-watching here since the sun and moon rise and set before, behind and below it.
Take sunrise, for example.
In early November, the sun rolls up Rainier’s north shoulder like a gravity-defying boulder on fire. People from elsewhere are surprised to hear that sunrise is visible even on cloudy winter mornings because the clouds that blow up from Chehalis are slightly higher than the summit’s 14,000 feet. Thus, the eye-popping purple cone of shadow across the bottom of the orange and red clouds just before dawn. So often in winter, those first five minutes of sunlight are the only time you’ll see the sun all day.
A few weeks later, the sun appears as a beacon shining straight from the blasted-out top of the sleeping volcano.
Just before Christmas, the sun comes up over the Cascades south of The Mountain. Then it stops because it’s the winter solstice, turns back, and appears under the clouds a little further north every day. Finally, on the longest day in June, the 5:15 sunrise is way around to the northeast, having traced an arc of 70 degrees on the compass in six months.
I may be a boomer from the Age of Aquarius, but no matter what Gen Z thinks, that doesn’t automatically mean I’m from the Stoned Age. Even so, after a decades-long Rip Van Winkle nap, I think I’d be as able as the paleolithic hunter-gatherers to recognize the month of the year if someone aimed me at Mount Rainier around dawn.
It’s the geographic equivalent of a sundial’s gnomon.
And then there’s the moon.
Is there anything at all like the speechless ecstasy of viewing a full moon with someone you love?
Every full moon is spectacular, and their traditional names are poetry: Snow Moon, Flower Moon, Strawberry Moon, Harvest Moon.
No doubt you admired the Sturgeon Moon Aug. 22. Its name may have filled you too that evening with nostalgic regret for a time not so long ago when that enormous prehistoric fish thrived in the clean waters of the Puyallup and the Nisqually rivers.
As the full moon gets higher in the sky on a still evening, its light marks a wide path across the flat water of the Sound. Moonglade is an old name for the swath of light on the water that connects us moonstruck people to the moon. The quaint word, like Sturgeon Moon, makes you notice time’s steady passage. The moon rises and sets, generations are born and pass, fish return to spawning rivers, and although the light is there again on the Puget Sound every month, old words like moonglade are forgotten.
Traditional Japanese aesthetics teaches the appreciation of impermanence. Full moons come and go, and they can be overwhelming in the perfection of their circles. But on nights when the moon passes in and out of clouds or is viewed through a bough of cherry blossoms, we are invited to contemplate the beauty of visions that last only for a moment.
The 14th-century monk Kenkō asked pointedly: “Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless?”
From our vantage point here on the Key Peninsula, we nod in agreement at his response, “How incomparably lovely is the moon when seen through the tops of cedars or when it hides for a moment behind clustering clouds.”
Dan Clouse lives in Lakebay.
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