Impressed in the west by magnificent autumn moons
ANOTHER LIFE: A DIFFERENT LIFT TO the wind, a new slant to the sky: as autumn unfolds, the west comes into its own. Like the great spring tides that surge across the strand, wiping it clean as a mirror, a realignment of light and space creates a bright new stage for the landscape, suddenly colourful in ways the summer people never see.
Summer’s high, flat light is as bland and clumsy as a passport photograph, if not attenuated by mist or drizzle, then soaked up by grasses in their beige shroud of high-season pollen. An October sun is a portraitist, a sculptor, glittering in the spikes of morning rushes, the cobwebs of hedges and lichened walls.
The mountains are given back their drama, sharp-edged and shadowed, reunited with their past, their glacial shaping lovingly detailed, the last erratic boulder spotlit in the bog. A moorland suffused with the death of sedges – madders and crimsons – sets its own fires from the torch of the sun: the smouldering siennas of falling bracken, the lion’s mane flare of moorgrass, bleached late into winter. It’s then that the little lakes shine bluest, like shards of lapis lazuli or cobalt.
For the moment, though, let’s settle for the autumn’s magnificent moons: the harvest moon tomorrow night, when the final 2 per cent of the orb becomes visible, cloud permitting, in Ireland, and the full hunter’s moon of October.
They must, of course, be shared with lesser skies (did I never notice them in Dublin, even on starstruck party nights?), but here they rise, already golden and enormous, from the ridge above Six Noggins. They sparkle for a while in the hill stream at the bridge, then lift above the peak of Mweelrea to make a silver ribbon of the boreen to the sea. If I am lucky, early at my desk, one still towers above the islands, mocking the earthbound scan of my computer.
Both moons invite what is termed the moon illusion: the conviction of so many people that full moons look biggest of all soon after clearing the horizon. Science admits the illusion but still can’t quite account for it. Ptolemy’s notion is still current: that the low moon looks bigger because we have foreground objects against which to measure it. The rich colour of the low moon, warmed to marzipan by industrial haze, may play a part too.
In 1709 George Berkeley, Irish bishop and philosopher, isolated the rising moon by looking at it through a tube, but he found that it still looked bigger.
Patrick Moore, the moon’s ambassador on Earth, once stood on his head on the shore at Selsey Bill to see if that made any difference. It didn’t.
I have wondered, if the moon rose in the west, in the pristine air of the Atlantic, would the moon illusion fade? Mayo’s fabulous sunsets, after all, often most brilliant in November, owe nothing to dust or haze for their incandescent colours. If that were true, as one American weatherman has pointed out, “cities such as New York, Los Angeles, London and Mexico City would be celebrated for their twilight hues.” Stephen F Corfidi is lead forecaster for the storm-prediction centre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ( noaa.gov), a great source of meteorological enlightenment. Late autumn and winter produce eastern America’s best sunsets, too, most memorably, as here at Thallabawn, when the right kind of clouds enrich and reflect a low but unadulterated sunlight.