When I was a kid, my family would spend summers sailing through Desolation Sound, Canada. The name was apt. One of the distinct memories I retain from that time is how still the waters would get at night when we anchored. As the sun set, the bay would turn steadily black, becoming so reflective you could see the moon in it, floating like a jellyfish.
We’ve imagined the quality of the moon’s surface since we had the capacity to look up: Is it soft, hard, cavernous, dry, or fecund? In the Buddhist Jataka tales, the moon’s markings are said to resemble a rabbit. While 1902’s silent film “Le voyage dans la lune” (“A Trip to the Moon”) envisions its surface as a surrealist dreamscape, ripe with mushrooms and curling organic pillars. Today, we know the real story behind the moon’s distinctive features: asteroid impacts from millions of years ago, causing primordial eruptions that altered the moon’s core density and gravitational pull. That’s why we only see one side.
But the mysterious psychic connection between man and moon is undeniable. Without the moon, our days would only be 6 to 8 hours long, and human beings wouldn’t be what we are. The celestial body slows Earth’s rotation in such a way that it has determined the course of life on Earth permanently.
“The sun and the moon and all planets, as well as the starts and the whole chaos, are in man… For what is outside is also inside.”
The moon makes our planet habitable but is itself, ironically, uninhabitable. This irony is magnified in its cartography. There is no moisture on the moon’s surface, but its craters and contours are named like bodies of water: the Sea of Crises, Lake of Forgetfulness, Seething Bay, Marsh of Decay, Sea of Serenity, Ocean of Storms. Names that overflow with human meaning.
One would assume such things are irrelevant in the vacuum of space. Decay and crises, for example, are Earth-bound phenomena—entirely separate from the goings on of celestial objects. But Lunacy finds its root in the Latin word Luna. It describes, quite literally, the phenomenon of becoming “moon struck.” At the turn of the century, asylums were known to overstaff on the occasion of the full moon. Today, NASA’s psychologists warn new astronauts they may experience feelings of radical disassociation—a disturbing experience sometimes shared by Air Force pilots. This is called the break-off phenomenon: the sudden sense of breaking apart from Earth.
Despite the moon’s obvious prominence, only 12 people—all men—have touched its surface, albeit through the stiff embrace of a protective spacesuit. The rest of us are left to imagine what it’s like. As the 16th-century physician and alchemist Paracelsus once wrote, “The sun and the moon and all planets, as well as the starts and the whole chaos, are in man… For what is outside is also inside.”
We can excavate the moon’s rocky surface through imagery, find shapes in it, draw mystic value from its proximity, but we will never feel the texture of moon dust, which is said to be like talcum powder. We will never experience the negative weight of its strange gravity or set foot on the hard rock of its oceans. In 2016 we’re still left to imagine and find shapes in the caverns, crags, and fjords.
Our moon is strange, as far as moons go—much larger than the others in the solar system. The satellite is so large, in fact, that it stabilizes Earth’s orbital axis. Unlike Saturn and its tiny moon Titan, our moon is more like a double and research has revealed this relationship to be highly unique.
It does not turn. Its face is too heavy for that. It has no seeds for its own revolution. All our lives, we only ever see the one side. But we know it well, and sometimes it feels like it might know us too.
Despite its distance, the moon is the most familiar face in the world.
Photographer / Yu Cong
Creative Direction / Lindsey Hornyak
Editorial / Charlotte Anderson