Our Becky wrote a book. It came out yesterday. It’s beautiful. And I got to talk with her about it.
Cameron: Could you tell the story about how this book came to be?
Becky: When I started working on this proposal, I imagined it as a sort of appreciation—here’s how cool the Moon is, here’s why you should care about it even though many astronomers find it dull, here’s what it has done for us. I wanted people to think about it in a way that transcends the modern rocket-measuring-contest obsession with going back there and mining or something. My editor, who is amazing, saw early on that this book was more like a history of human thought.
So when I started writing it, I wanted to connect its existence to our own, and our process of thought through time. And I set out to find some interesting lunar connections. As I found these different connections—ranging from the earliest methods of timekeeping, to the roots of religion and philosophy—I grew convinced that this wasn’t going to be an appreciation, but instead an argument. Like: The Moon is responsible for every giant leap we have made as a species. We would not be here without it, and here are all of the reasons why.
Cameron: Before reading this book, I’d never thought of the Moon from the Moon’s perspective. That is, I’d only thought about it as it looks from Earth. You write so beautifully about the Moon and some of the things it experiences–its own seasons and solstices, even a water cycle–and what it might be like to be on the Moon. What was it like for you to think and write about the Moon this way?
Becky: I really wanted the Moon to be the main character of this book. At one point I mapped out the chapters according to Campbell’s traditional hero’s journey — like, the Moon is the central character experiencing a journey of supernatural wonder, encountering forces acting against its interest, triumphing over those forces, and reckoning with the transformation that ensues. I think the ultimate structure is not quite that, but there are some echoes of it in the narrative. In the middle, for instance, the Moon falls from grace; once it is divorced from our notion of time, and Galileo and his contemporaries prove that it is just one satellite of many, the Moon faces its abyss. I tried to keep those narrative ideas in mind as I was writing. If the Moon was a character, what would it feel? Without ascribing too much agency or personification to the Moon, I really wanted to keep it and its experience front and center, whether that was to consider the physical traits that separate it from Earth, or to think about how the Moon experiences the sublime. I also really just love thinking about what it would be like there. I tried to focus on the Earthly things we often take for granted, and how much we would miss them when they were gone.
Cameron: This is a dorky copy editing question, but I’ve always felt a little unsure about capitalizing “moon”. But after reading your book the Moon really does feel like its own character, and I feel much better about capitalizing it! Has this crossed your mind or have you always been pro Moon?
Becky: I am so glad to hear this! I will die on this hill. The Moon is a place, and it should be handled as a proper noun. We treat Earth this way. The planet, our home, is Earth, uppercase E. Dirt beneath your fingers in the garden is earth, lowercase e. The Moon, our Moon, is the Moon, capital M. Callisto and Ganymede and other satellites of Jupiter are moons, lowercase m. I used to be anti-capital M, long before I started writing this book, but that’s just a vestigial reminder of my AP Style Guide and journalism background. I have been thinking about sending the AP style guide people a strongly worded email with my book as evidence that they need to make an update.
Cameron: I love the way that the Moon has connected people through time and space–and also has been so critical in shaping people’s understanding of inner and outer time.. The archaeological sites that show ancient interest in lunar astronomy that you visit throughout the book are so fascinating! What was it like to see that and many of these other places in person?
Becky: I felt so lucky to have a job that took me through Europe to see things like the Nebra sky disk, and the stone circles of northeastern Scotland, among other things. It was important to me to distinguish this book from the numerous other Moon books out there, most of which are focused on Apollo or maybe on science fiction. Either way, those are almost all about our very recent experiential history with the Moon. I knew I wanted to convey that our relationship with it is so much older, and so much more profound, than Apollo’s bags of sand or even the stories of Jules Verne and his successors in science fiction. I wanted to go as far back in time as I could to study the depth of our relationship with the Moon, and it turned out that these Stone Age and Bronze Age artifacts held really deep lunar meanings. Like so many things in this book, I realized the true depth of those meanings only after I started doing this research. It started out like, “oh cool, look at this thing! Neat” and quickly transformed into, “Actually, this thing is the reason we figured out X, or did Y and Z, and it is all because of the Moon.”
Cameron: I’ve seen how the place where the sun rises and sets changes throughout the course of the year. One of the many new things I learned was that the Moon goes through its own journey like this–but it lasts about 19 years! At either end of this journey, the Moon seems to pause for about three years, in what’s called a lunar standstill. People all over the world have known this for thousands and thousands of years and have built structures that recognize this lunar journey, including the Great House at Chimney Rock National Monument (yay, National Monuments!) that you visited with your older daughter. This is a very long set-up to ask–where are we in this cycle now, and is there a place you’re planning on visiting during the next lunar standstill?
Becky: The lunistice! I loved learning about this too, which I have to admit was something I didn’t understand before I started writing this book. I spent a long time trying to understand it properly. It’s one of many things in this book that ancient people grasped, in a fundamental way, that I feel we have lost in modern society. At the very least, we would have a harder time seeing it. We are actually pretty close to the next lunar standstill! Technically, it started in 2021, but the standstill’s ultimate limit will be in January 2025, so about a year from now. I might be at Chimney Rock again, but the Great House within the monument (yay, National Monuments!!) is not accessible at night, so it’s not clear yet what the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association will have planned for this event.
Cameron: Is there a story about the Moon that didn’t fit in the book but you wish people knew?
Becky: I left a lot on the cutting room floor, because I didn’t want this book to be an encyclopedia. Among my editor’s good advice was to remember that places, projects, people, and events had to really serve the overarching purpose of walking through the Moon’s relationship with us. That means there were so many anecdotes and stories that didn’t make the cut, and I feel bad about almost all of them! I have been thinking about tweeting them or something, one day when I have time to make a list. Or maybe writing a blog post about them!
One of my favorites is a story from Norse mythology, in which the Moon is the brother of the Sun, and they are both being chased through heaven by two separate wolves. At the time of Ragnarok, which is the Norse version of the apocalypse, the wolves will finally catch up to them both, and devour the Sun and the Moon. This was the premise of a children’s novel I just read with my 8-year-old, called Fenris & Mott, by Greg Van Eekhout.
Cameron: In the book, you talk about the importance of speaking for the Moon, which is so integral to life as we know it on Earth. The book itself feels like it is doing this work of being a voice for the Moon. I’m not sure if there’s a question in here, more of an appreciation. Maybe the question is: if you were imagining the voice of the Moon, what would it sound like? What would it say?
I am so happy to hear this! That was really the overall goal of this book. No one speaks for the Moon, so I am trying to do that, or at least a version of it. I knew that by the end, I wanted to ask, and I wanted readers to consider, “what do we owe the Moon now?” After all this history, after everything it has shepherded into existence, what are we going to do with it? I wanted to at least consider its voice, if not serving as an avatar for that voice.
I think if it could speak, it would be quiet, ancient, and wise. I think of it as female, not because of any mythology around the lunar feminine, even though things like hysteria and lunacy and witchcraft have always been associated with the Moon. It’s because I think of it like a motherly figure. It is the thing that makes us who we are. Its influence never ends, even when we don’t see it every night, or every day. Even when we take it for granted. I think its voice would be confident, strong, maternal, and eternal—the sort of voice people hear, and feel instantly at home.