Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on: 9/6/1998

Moonlight wafting has been my most popular program on the Eno River. I surmise that it is not because the night provides a much better experience with nature. In general, the daytime experience of color wins hands down.

The night experience is so in demand because most of us know very little about navigating and being comfortable with the night. This is amazing in that we spend almost half of our lives with the night upon us. If I were to guess a principle reason for our lack of appreciation of the night, I would say that it is the coming of the electric light bulb into our homes. Strong and dependable electric lighting has opened up so many more possibilities for indoor activities that seem more engrossing and feel safer. At first, it was reading books with the new electric light. Now it is television, the Internet and other modern media.

With modern urban society low on offerings of nighttime outdoor experiences, people flock to anyone who offers a safe, nocturnal, nature outing. For some it is just to tweak their curiosity about a novel experience. Others search for that elusive romantic encounter with a partner under a full moon. Still others sense a need for the fulfillment of a living experience with the wild that will in some way complement their daytime knowledge of the outdoors.

My first interest in the moon began during my sojourning years in the Middle East. Arabs of the Islamic tradition still measure time with a lunar calendar. We are currently in the year 1419 in their scheme of things. Measured against the West's Gregorian solar calendar, the Islamic lunar year with its twelve lunar months is eleven days shorter. That means that during the course of a lifetime, one's birthday can gradually pass through all the seasons a couple of times. And Ii is a very intimate and handy calendar, in that all you have to do to figure out where you are in the month, is to look up in the evening sky. Spiritual celebrations and festivals are closely tied to the lunar calendar as well.

The most ancient of traditional Arab societies was composed of bedouins. They spent countless nights of the year in encampments under the moon telling stories around a campfire. Moon watching was a way to segment and measure their long treks across the deserts of Arabia. I became fascinated with this mode of timekeeping myself and went back and counted the number of moons I have seen in my lifetime. I am well past the five hundred mark. If I am lucky (or if Allah so wills it), I may be fortunate enough to gaze upon one thousand moons, a reasonable goal for one's life. I was born under a waning crescent, so I celebrate a lunar birthday each month, an occasion that ties me more intimately with the Earth's cycles and makes life on Planet Earth a lot more interesting.

I usually start moonlight wafting the week of the waxing gibbous moon. The moon has climbed fairly high by the time we are on the water at nine o'clock in the evening. Since we are in a narrow river valley, we have to give the moon time to rise above the southeastern ridge of the valley and climb above the trees before it can be seen overhead. By the evening of the full moon, it is rising right at sunset. By ten o'clock in the evening, we are stationed in our boats on the widest point in the river and are able to watch the moon rise over a tree-lined ridge and cast its magnificent glow all around us.

The classic moonlight river setting, which I have a painting of hanging on my wall, includes a huge white sycamore tree basking in moon glow. Fortunately we have that very situation on the Eno River at West Point Park. As the moon comes over the ridge, it lights up a one hundred foot, sprawling, double-trunked sycamore on the north bank and illuminates it as if it had been switched on to glow in the dark. The wafter can then pull under the tree with his boat and find the reflection of the moonlight on the water dancing on the trunk and underside of its wavy limbs. To quote Van Morrison's popular song, it becomes "a marvelous night for a moondance!"

I find the whole lunar experience over water quite inspiring. To have a world that is black and white with shades of gray is very beautiful. It reminds me of how a black and white photograph will sometimes capture certain kinds of moods better than color. In the moonlit night, forms and shapes become important and replace the depth perception we experience with color. I have learned how to identify the species of most river trees just by their silhouette. People's faces take on a certain soft glow in moonlight that makes them particularly beautiful. Moonlight evokes a serenity in my spirit that is uncommon in daylight hours.

I enjoy gazing across the water and seeing my boats serenely spread out over the surface of the river. As the wafters glide about gently on the water, it evokes a dreamy mental image of people meeting one another after death in another existence that is entirely different from what we presently know. It is as if the moonlight had stripped us of our three dimensional bodies and we are floating about as shadowy spirits on an ancient sea of ether. A bullfrog groans in the background ... "jug-a-rum!" I am suddenly made aware of the pulsating call of katydids serenading our wafting party. A cuckoo emits its maniacal nocturnal cackle. We are still on Planet Earth ...

 Photo by Riverdave: full moon on the Amazon River in Brazil