By the light of the moon

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This year, I've noticed on the milk-room calendar, the winter solstice coincides with a full moon. I find it comforting to think that the seasons will shift in its aura - that the year's shortest day might, if the night is clear, be lengthened lightwise by the bright face of our companion satellite.

I keep aware of the moon's phase and path, not only in winter, when I need all the light I can get, but all year round. It's a rare week I don't notice its waxing or waning, and I follow its course closely enough to know, even before glancing up of an evening, just about where it will be and how full.

Watching the moon during my occasional evening milkings, I can follow its rise through the branches of nearby sycamores and cedars, and watch it move edgewise across the sky - an exercise as centering and quietly satisfying as tending the animals below.

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If this is not a widely shared vision of entertaining nightlife, I know that I am not alone in my preoccupations. Upon exiting the milking parlor, the cows sometimes key into the moon, too. They often lift their heads under the pearly gleam of a full moon, as if seeking answers to age-old questions. In their own way, perhaps they are.

Of course, I don't know what they may be thinking, but they seem neither addled nor agitated - just at ease and thoughtfully attentive as the soft light halos their upturned ears. This is bovinity at its best. The one animal that may act up under the full moon is Ben, our big black Percheron draft horse who tends to be volatile when the moon is full - or new - or at any stage of crescent. It's just how he is; he needs no celestial prompt.

Sometimes, especially in winter when I am inside more, I lose track of the moon for a few days. When I remember with a start to take note of it and look up, it feels a little like checking on a sleeping child. "Ah, there you are, safe and sound, just where you should be."

Locating the moon is a settling exercise, particularly when I'm away from home.

The last time my son and I took off for a weekend, it was to a suburb of Louisville. Standing in the driveway before taking us out to dinner in town, our friend and host remarked on the moon. Where to look? It was disconcerting to have lost my celestial bearings for a moment. Then deeply satisfying to anchor in and get them back.

For years, Tim and I have enjoyed visiting a small, historic observatory nestled in a woodland preserve of the nearby Indiana University campus. On Wednesday evenings, astronomy graduate students host public viewings through the eye of the old telescope, which is often aimed at the moon.

It never fails to startle me when the brilliantly alien landscape of craters and maria leaps into close focus. It is a sight and experience to savor, but I am also happy enough to turn the eyepiece over to the next in line and fall back on the more familiar perspective of my unaided eye to the moon I know.

I may pay the moon serious attention, but there are those who put me to shame, scheduling everything from planting potatoes and onions to reshingling roofs by its waxings and wanings. The moon, after all, controls the tides and adds a wiggle to the earth's rotation.

But I live far from any tides, and my roof is snug. There is no shortage of potatoes in Southern Indiana. All the moon need do for me is be there when I look up in the evening, bathe me and my cows in its welcome light, especially on dark winter eves, and edge up through the trees and sky as it always has.

There's nothing more I ask - except, perhaps, for a cloudless solstice when it comes full once again.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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