I like it when I stumble upon a form of magic that I never even knew existed.
That’s what happened Thursday, as I desultorily flipped through A Book About A Thousand Things, the 1946 magpie’s-nest from George Stimpson that addresses such burning questions as “how do bees hum?” and “does fright cause the guinea fowl’s flesh to turn blue?”
Rainbows by moonlight, known as moonbows, are unusual but not rare phenomena. Aristotle referred to lunar bows about twenty-two hundred years ago, and they are well known to scientists, although they are not often observed, chiefly because of the faintness of the light at night. Only under exceptional conditions can the colors of a moonbow be seen. Lunar rainbows are most likely to occur after showers on nights when the moon is bright but not too high in the heavens. Similar lunar bows are periodically visible in the spray of certain waterfalls, such as the Cumberland Falls about eighteen miles southwest of Corbin, Kentucky.
That’s a Cumberland Falls moonbow, of the harvest kind, up yonder. More moonbows beyond the “furthur.”
I have seen plenty of rings around the moon, which are usually harbingers of rain. But never a moonbow. Of course, I don’t get out nearly as much as I should, especially at night, a failing I share with most 21st Century First World peoples.
Who knows what else I might be missing?
The light in a moonbow comes all the way from the moon, reflecting sunlight to a world caught in darkness. Moonbow light most often appears to us as white, as the light is too faint to excite those cone receptors in our eyes which gift us with color. In long-exposure pho-tographs, the colors glow clear. A moonbow always appears in that area of the sky opposite to the moon.
I am now haunted by the question of what the meaning of moonbows might be.
For we know that on one of the occasions when Yahweh grew weary of his world, he resolved to drown it. But first he called upon a bibulous 600-year-old man, Noah, and told him to build a boat. There Noah and his family, as well as a male and a female representative of each of the creatures on the earth, could ride out the coming flood, and, once it receded, start the whole thing all over again.
It is apparent that some creatures never made it onto the boat. There is a harrowing song by the Irish Rovers that claims to explain the exclusion of the unicorn—apparently the things were “silly,” and ran and hid while the ark was loading. “Them unicorns were hiding, playing silly games,” we are told, “kicking and splashing while the rain was falling/oh, them silly unicorns.” An exasperated Noah eventually says: “close the door because the rain is falling/and we just can’t wait for no unicorns.” As the ark drifted away, “the unicorns looked up from the rocks and they cried.“ Then occurs the genocide: “and the waters came down and sort of floated them away/that’s why you never see unicorns to this very day.”
Now, for reasons that passeth understanding, generations of alleged “grown-ups” have believed this brutal snuff tale to be a children’s song, and so have subjected their own spawn to it. As I am of the opinion that it is a sin to inflict such Wrongness upon anyone of tender sensibilities, much less any child, I am not linking to it here.
Then there are the dinosaurs. Some 40% of the American population is convinced that the earth is roughly 6000 years old, and that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs to church. Yet there are no dinosaurs among us today. One irreverent theologian has rendered in cartoon form his theory as to why that is: yes, “the rapture,” that magical moment when all the righteous shall be lifted bodily from the earth, to join the Creator in Heaven, has in fact already occurred, long ago, and pre-Deluge, and that rapture took the dinosaurs. All we rest, found wanting, are “left behind.”
Anyway, once Yahweh turned off the waterworks, and the waves receded, the boat fetched up on land, at which time Noah im-mediately became so drunk that he fell into stuporous sleep. This is a moment captured by Michel-angelo, and available for viewing here, together with a religious text that condemns Noah as “an asshole” for not once attempting to prevail upon Yawheh not to drown the world and all the creatures on it. “He should,” it is asserted, “have argued.”
In any event, once Noah awakened from his tosspot slumber, Yahweh pronounced a covenant in which he vowed never again to wash everybody off the world.
Then God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying: “And as for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you: the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, of all that go out of the ark, every beast of the earth. Thus I establish My covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
And God said: “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living crea-ture that is with you, for perpetual generations: I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant be-tween Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” And God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Okay, that’s clear enough: the rainbow means no more world-drowning floods. But what does the moonbow mean?
The King James furnishes no ready answers, and since Yahweh himself hasn’t said a word since he barked at Job out of the whirlwind, the answer, I guess, shall remain a mystery.
Let’s have some moon music.
So tonight I am going to venture out into the world, in search of moonbows. There’s been a little rain; the moon is not too high; there may be some out there.
An appropriate supplication, a la Tom O’Bedlam, is a good idea first, I think.
from the hag and hungry goblin
that into rags would rend ye
all the spirits that stand
by the naked man
in the book of moons, defend ye
the moon embrace her shepherd
and the queen of love her warrior
while the first doth horn
the star of morn
and the next the heavenly farrier
with a host of furious fancies
whereof i am commander
with a burning spear
and a horse of air
to the wilderness i wander
by a knight of ghosts and shadows
i summoned am to tourney
ten leagues beyond
the wide world’s end—
methinks it is no journey