Luna como lunática


Years ago, I was in Cusco, Peru. I was alone, briefly, waiting for some friends to join me. I was still acclimatizing to the altitude: the hilly streets sucked the breath from my lungs. My mouth and fingers took on a ghoulish blue. I knew, intellectually, that it would pass in a matter of days, but I still wondered how we’d all manage the four-day hike to Machu Picchu. In the hostel lobby there was a hot-water urn, a stack of polystyrene cups and a basket of maté leaves, good for altitude sickness. 

In a brochure, I read about an archeological site walking distance from town: el templo de la luna, the moon temple. At a small hut some distance from the entrance, a man told me I had to take off my shoes to walk on the grounds. I could only understand scraps of Spanish, and not enough to decipher why I needed to remove my boots, but he was patient with me, could see I was trying; gave me, I assume, an abridged version of the literate tourist’s welcome spiel. Luna como lunática, he said, and luna como las mujeres. That much I could understand. I left him and walked alone around the stone palace, barefoot in the mud, boots in my hand. 

From Late Latin: lunaticus, moon-struck. From Old French: lunatique, insane.

It rained. I rolled my jeans to my ankles. Between streaks of mud, my feet were bluish and oxygen-starved. When I walked back into town, the horses in the fields eyed me warily. A young boy offered to give me a tour; he wanted money; I had none; I had only my shoes in my hand and, presumably, the slightly deranged look of a woman, barefoot and stringy-haired and wet to the bone. 

Luna como lunática. Luna como las mujeres. Over the years, I’ve thought of the attendant at the temple entrance often. I still don’t speak any Spanish, but those phrases often swim back to me when I hear talk of the moon, or tidal insanity, or mercurial women. 

Friends who work as paramedics or nurses or social workers often describe spikes of activity at the time of the full moon. An exceptionally chaotic shift. An increase in violent patients or clients. A surge in child protection notifications, psychiatric emergencies, traffic accidents. Even teacher friends have remarked on it, too, though more wryly: lower stakes, I suppose. Recently I learned there’s a name for this apparent phenomenon: the Transylvania Effect. If this sounds like a relic of the Middle Ages, it is—it has roots in a time when, throughout much of Europe, it was widely believed that people changed into werewolves at the advent of the full moon. 

These days, us lay people often attribute lunar lunacy to water. If 60–70 per cent of our body is made of the stuff, perhaps it follows that we, like the tides, are subject to the moon’s mysterious power. But this is easily—if unromantically—debunked. The moon’s gravitational pull is equally strong during the new moon phase as the full moon phase; yet neither science nor folklore places as much weight on the night when the moon is invisible. Moreover, while the moon’s gravitational pull is observable on open bodies of water, it does not affect contained sources like our bodies and brains. None of the dozens of studies undertaken on the subject have offered any conclusive evidence to support a link between the moon and human biology or psychology. Yet the belief in a moon-mood relationship persists, even among the most rationally-minded medical professionals.

I tend toward skepticism in general, but I am fascinated by this idea. I even love its vocabulary: to be moon-eyed is to wear an expression of astonishment, wonder, grief, or adoration. To moon about is to waste time or idle; to move aimlessly. A person described as moony might be listless or lost in a reverie, depending on the context. In each of these phrases is a sense of the dreamy, but also the restless. Moon-struck: dazed or preoccupied, especially by romantic thoughts or longing. Sometimes moon-struck is defined more baldly as crazed: I think of Lear thrashing around in the elements, driven to madness by the foibles of his own capricious nature.

One of my favorite family stories is about my maternal grandparents. They separated when I was six or seven, and their relationship was a complicated one. But this story is not about a difficult time: it takes place before then, before they were married. When they were newly dating, they went for a drive one night. I know the road they took. It’s called the Black Spur. I drive it often too, on my way to my parents’ house. It’s no lover’s lane—quite the opposite, it’s known for being a dangerous stretch of highway. A narrow two-lane pass that clings to the sides of mountains, studded with hairpin turns. There are no streetlights even now, and the foliage is so thick that cars often throw on their high-beams against the fog or dusk. In the dark, those high irradiate the road signs with their advisory speed limits and wash the enormous ferns in electric green. 

On either side of the road, trees hundreds of years old—mostly eucalypts—press skyward. There are a handful of places to pull off, just long enough to let another vehicle pass, but for the most part, once you start driving, you can’t stop: even the trails are places you need to hike into. In storms and winter weather, gusts of wind cleave boughs from large trunks. Nothing more, if you’re lucky, although the guardrail bears sobering evidence of fallen trees, some almost the diameter of my little car. I mention all of this to say: it is a beautiful and dangerous road, thickly forested and far enough from the city that little light pollution reaches it. At night, the darkness is total.

In this story, my grandparents are in the car, maybe hoping to find a make-out spot along the Black Spur. As they drive, my grandfather snaps off the car’s headlights in order to better see the moon and stars overhead. I can’t imagine it—partly because the canopy of trees is so thick that I can’t imagine that even the light of a full moon would have allowed him sufficient visibility to navigate the road; but mostly because my grandfather was a meticulous and careful man, highly anxious, very sensible. It’s almost—almost—implausible to me that he would have risked his car, let alone his life or his date’s. That’s part of why I’m so enchanted by the image.

I heard this story from an unreliable narrator—my nan, who sat in the suicide seat that night as they rounded every turn with only the moon as their witness. I’ll never know if it really happened, but, like the Transylvania Effect, the truth is less interesting, less important, than the idea itself. Even now, I can’t drive that highway without thinking of the two of them, young and moon-struck, in a car in a tunnel of trees. They must have felt invincible.