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Midnight in the garden
On New Year’s Eve this winter I walked the coastal headlands with my husband to greet 2010 in the pale storm light of a rare blue moon— the second full moon of the month. While more than one hundred dedicated meditators sat zazen in the Green Gulch meditation hall, we climbed Coyote Ridge alone, not saying a word. The moon rode high in the saddle of the night. The ocean boomed in the dark-fingered sea-canyons below, pulled by the perigean high tides of the year.
Later that night, long after midnight, we held a ritual burial for our 2009 moon calendar in the steaming compost pile at the edge of the garden. To mark the growing seasons by tracking the phases of the moon and noting lunar influence on plant growth is old practice. Earth’s tides are produced by the gravitational attractions of the moon and sun. Whenever the moon is new, or two weeks later when it is full, it is in alignment with the sun and the earth. In its elliptical orbit, when the moon is new, it stands in front of the sun, its disc obscured by solar brilliance. And when it is full, the moon is opposite the sun, completely illuminated by the sun’s reflective light.
Whatever its phase, I feel the pull of the moon. Since the beginning of recorded time the word moon has carried a root connection with measuring. Relative to the earth, the moon rotates once around its axis once every twenty-nine-and-a-half days, which is almost equivalent to a month. The cycles of the moon have an uncanny correspondence to the female menstrual cycle and to the gestation of human young, since a child lives in its mother’s womb for ten moon-months. Many ancient civilizations—the Chinese and Babylonians, the Hebrews and followers of Islam—kept a lunar calendar to mark the cycles of the year. In the time of the Buddha, monthly confessions and recitations of the precepts were traditionally held on the new and full moon.
The celestial push and pull of the sun and moon influence how I work in the garden. For more than thirty years I have sown garden seeds in the bright of the moon, or during that two-week lunar waxing or inclination period from new moon until full. And conversely, I have been careful to transplant and take care of underground garden matters during the waning or dark declination of the moon, that two-week period from full moon until new. I’ve become a bit of a Zen lunatic, I realized after walking the headlands on that blue moon New Year’s Eve. Do I actually believe that the moon is somehow certifying my garden practice and that I might be, by virtue of my lunar seniority, an enlightened moonbeamer?
This is trouble horticulturally and meditationally, so I am taking a strong antidote. Studying Dogen’s fascicle Tsuki, or The Moon, is a fine remedy for those of us on the lunatic fringe. “Thoroughly study that tonight’s moon, from beginning to end, is tonight’s moon.... Although there is a moon, it is neither new nor old, because moon inherits moon.... Not moving or stopping, not going forward or backward, the moon’s motion is not a metaphor. It is the actualization of alone and full.”
One of my old Zen friends used to love to approach me on full moon nights and murmur portentously, “The moon is full,” and then wait a few beats before hissing, “and nothing is happening.” Because I know full well that nothing exists, I have stopped calculating degrees of emptiness using the gauge of the moonlit night. Instead, I am focusing on the ground where I work every day. In late February, tidal surge filled the road leading out to Muir Beach, backing up Redwood Creek, which runs behind our home. My body clock knew it was a full moon, but I worked hard not to attribute moon or tides to, later in the day, the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that shook the coast of Chile for ninety terrifying seconds and sent tsunami warnings all along the Pacific coast. Although some geologists theorize that the same forces that cause the highest tides may also trigger earthquakes, especially when the full moon coincides with perigee, the closest the moon comes every month to the earth—as it was during the Chilean quake—I still remind myself, with Dogen’s help, “The moons do and do not use coming and going...the moons are as they are.”
It is May now, just past full moon. When I am unable to sleep during these sultry late spring nights, I go outside before moonrise and walk in the black sable darkness. Sometimes I sit still near Redwood Creek, well beyond the cultivated garden, and listen to the murmur of the water as it meanders in languid curls out to the sea. With no moon to measure the length and phases of the night, I forget for a moment where I am. Then, alone and full, I return home.
Wendy Johnson is Tricycle’s longest-running columnist. Her first “On Gardening” column appeared in the Summer 1995 issue. She is the author of Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World.
Image 1: © James Welling, 019, c-type mounted to plexi, 48 x 37 inches, 2006; Courtesy of Maureen Paley, London
Image 2: © James Welling, 030, c-type mounted to plexi, 48 x 37 inches, 2006; Courtesy of Maureen Paley, London