The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
(The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes)
Loloma Elementary School, Scottsdale AZ, sometime in the 1960s
In Loloma Elementary School we regularly had to memorize fairly lengthy poems and then recite them to the rest of the class. (I wonder if people still do that today?) One that I can still recall after all these years is Alfred Noyes' 102-line The Highwayman. And the line that I remember best is right at the top - line 2. "The moon was a ghostly galleon." I had no idea what a galleon was, and had to ask. But the power of that line was immediately apparent, even to my 10 year old brain. I absolutely love the sight of a full moon amidst a sky of fast moving patchy clouds. The clouds seem to be standing still, with the moon racing along behind them, ducking from cover to cover. It remains my favorite optical illusion.
As much as I love observing the Moon through a telescope, I have to admit that some of the most incredible views I have had of our planet's satellite have been using nothing but my eyes. When I lived in Fells Point, Baltimore, I would make a point of standing at the water's edge at moonrise and watch it emerge from the harbor. It seemed to positively leap out of the waves, and I could almost feel the Earth rotating beneath me. Just as impressive would be driving (east) home along I-70 from a Carrs Mill star party and seeing the Moon at eye level, especially when it is bright orange as it sometimes appears. And a pencil-thin crescent in the deep blue twilight just after sunset is, I think, one of the most beautiful sights nature has to offer - especially when accompanied by brilliant Venus as the Evening Star.
But one my favorite atmospheric effects is the lunar halo. Caused by the diffraction of moonlight by ice crystals high in the atmosphere, a truly stupendous circle of light surrounds the Moon, dominating the entire sky. At such times I like to imagine myself standing on the surface of Amalthea, the innermost large moon of Jupiter, and staring up at the impossibly large globe of that planet hanging above me. Picture the halo being Jupiter, and you get the idea.
Jupiter, as seen from the surface of Amalthea
Only once in my life have I been privileged to see a moonbow. It's basically a rainbow, as seen by moonlight. All the same colors are there, but muted and somewhat silvery - and, of course, it's nighttime. I was driving home from a day at RAF Waddington in England, passing through one of the all-too-frequent rain showers one experiences on that island, when there it was, off over the fields and above the hedgerows. Pure magic - I half expected to see fairies dancing along the roadside. By chance, I happened to be passing a circle of standing stones, erected some thousands of years ago, and pulled over to drink in the sight (one of the many times I wished I owned a camera).
Through the telescope, the Moon's surface is naturally the star of the show. But it's always a thrill when I see a high flying bat pass in front of lunar disk. The frequency of such fly-bys is absolutely amazing, considering how small an area of the sky the Moon occupies. The air above Carrs Mill must be positively saturated with bats for so many of them to be observed in such a tiny space.
So a word to all you Moon-haters who might be reading this. Don't overlook the many wonderful sights our satellite can offer, even while it drowns out all the fainter deep sky objects out there. There's as much poetry in a moonlit night as there is under the unchallenged stars, and we're lucky to be able to enjoy it.