We began our journey just before the setting sun, with time enough to reach our perch in preparation for the rising Harvest Moon on the opposite side of the world. It is here that the magic begins afresh. Just as the trail turns away from the edge and rises slightly before plunging into the huckleberries, shrubs, and a tentatively mixed forest, we detour a few steps onto what appears to be a well-trodden side trail flaring out. The short path is open and with a few paces it leads to a stone outcrop with a pitch pine at the edge overlooking the broad Wallkill Valley. The pine has adjusted its orientation to face back toward the prominent eastern edge of The Trapps. The earth slopes to greet this outcrop adjacent to the tree, but before abruptly plunging hundreds of feet over the sheer cliff, it offers, tucked to the left of the stone outcrop, a terraced landing sloping gently to establish a welcome but still dangerous platform for tripod, knapsack and thirsty traveler. During the pre-dawn hours this sparsely grassed plot provides a great place to witness the rising sun, although it is decidedly dangerous for early morning clumsiness (note: the imagery from the opening animation was acquired from there). Earlier in the year, when the sun rises at a more northward locale on the horizon relative to our arrival, The Trapps touchdown at a point to welcome the sun’s emergence. At the time, one often discovers a slow dispersal of fog that creeps over the majestic cliffs in the dawning light. The broad Wallkill Valley is filled with a similar fog during many a morning, but when spied from the landing, the fog appears to have a life of its own. It starts out as a thick blanketing mass, almost a giant living mass that is animated by weather patterns of its own internal generation. The large gray mass moves at first as a single presence in transition. Rapidly, it gives way to a medium of atmospherics— displaying glowing hints of the soon-to-be rising sun as it blends warm tones into its underbelly. Then, with the rising sun itself, it becomes sheer translucence in places— a whispering curtain partaking of an immanent happening. But even then, with its variable lifespan, dense, opaque flows remain dispersed within it. After more time for clearing, t becomes evident to the viewer that the remaining dense flows correspond to the course of the Wallkill River in the near distance, and the Hudson River further beyond. Meanwhile, as the sun rises, the pitch pine hanging over the cliff at the edge remains in the perfect position to greet the warm glow of the sun on its face.
This all takes place during a different hour of magic than the one we now prepare for as we sit in the same plot at the end of the day waiting for the Harvest Moon to rise and follow the same arc. The sun has recently set behind us. And just before the salient moment, the deepening blue sky remains at a balancing point. It feels sustained in deep blue luminance— full of volume, anticipating, but not disclosing the point of emergence. Then, without advanced notice or the slightest fanfare, the yellow-orange moon begins to silently slip upward from beyond the distant Plattekill hills. The communication towers on Illinois Mountain blink responsibly but completely independent of the happening. Just to the left of the blinking towers the moon creeps upward almost secretly at first, for the sky has not had time enough to deepen into a night that is worthy of its reception. When it has emerged full and characteristically orange-yellow, it’s presence is certainly prominent next to the horizon, but still it appears initially to be just another handsome feature in a structurally handsome landscape. Shortly, however, very shortly after it establishes a slight gap from the horizon, it asserts its form as an independent glowing body. The sky deepens in response. It is only a matter of minutes, perhaps seconds, before it’s glowing and growing presence pulls the gravity of our consciousness toward it exclusively. What was just a wide arcing landscape filling almost half of the horizon only a few seconds prior, is rapidly repositioned on the side of the observer to extend our chest and shoulders, so to speak— as both the observer and the land now partake of the same attentiveness to the moon’s ever-building presence. It has transformed from a feature of the landscape to the most condensed and potent power of the landscape, as the landscape drops out into a voluminous darkness.
As suggested in the previous section of this essay, there is no recording of this presence that is possible. Even though we can generate a few photographs as visual reminders, images will not harbor that primary power of experience even when our instrumentation gathers more detail than our eyes can resolve. By comparison, the image will always remain flat, no matter how spatial we play the game of virtually projecting ourselves into it. Beneath the rising moon, route 44-55 is busy with a trail of glowing headlights passing over the ridge. Somewhere in the winding twists of the same road and deeper into the interior of the Gunks, vehicles will crest a hill to be greeted by this abrupt presence with power enough to pull an audible gasp from the occupants, and the mouthing of that simple word: “moon”.
Yes, the moon. Obvious— even prosaic to thought, but never to experience— at least not when the conditions are right. The rising moon is always poetic when truly received— not by virtue of additional romantic thoughts, but by virtue of its sheer and simple presence. It is the myth-maker par excellence. And sadly, there are billions of individuals who seldom experience it on its terms.
We often reference the moon as a ‘she’, for she is patient, though swift. She rises and inflates, not so much in splendor, but in that simple and effective potency of presence that we keep coming back to in these essays. Just below her, the train of vehicles flows over the ridge. A large gathering of climbers and hikers have made their way to the Mountain Brauhaus at the intersection of Routes 299 and 44-55. After all, the Harvest Moon has risen on a Friday night this year. From our little plot of sloping land snuggled on the cliff like a lumpy magic carpet, we travel the horizon to witness it all like a hidden dreamer dreaming the busy landscape in a vicarious act— a voyeurism without the sex appeal. We remain an integral feature of the voluminous darkness as it too partakes of witnessing, for it is now on our side of the dipole as a subject engaged in an object.
After lingering to soak in the rising moon, we gather our gear and head southwest on the trail, with the moon hanging low behind our left shoulder. Daylight journeys are self-evident for the senses, but twilight journeys require either full adaptation to the low lighting at foot level, or commitment to the cone of light provided by a flashlight. Traveling by flashlight provides a heightened adventure for the motor-infused senses, but movement should not be taken for granted in this terrain. The flashlight takes over the role of progenitor of our world the moment that we dip into the huckleberry, mountain laurel and lightly forested terrain. The moon is not yet high enough to provide more than a constant allure and a sublime and mysterious, if not cheery disposition to our mood. It has yet to penetrate the thickets. The trail ducks in and out, and then mostly into the forest with rock outcroppings that take over its meandering course. Even the slightest moment of unresolved lighting at the feet is wrought with danger as our gait believes the false relief and plods forward in full confidence despite the shadow play of rough terrain. If we’re lucky, this misplaced confidence will be only reprimanded by stabs and strains from off-planted feet and knees, thus pulling us back into deliberative attention should we begin to get lazy with the flashlight. The moon is a constant allure, even a distraction. It is wiser to simply stop and soak in the rising moon through the branches, as opposed to glimpsing it on the march. And so we do, multiple times. We adhere to the blue-marked trail, which is no small feat in the cone of the flashlight, even though it is much brighter on this night than on most other nights. Every blazed turn marked on the rock must be acknowledged, otherwise we discover ourselves standing amidst huckleberry thickets with no clear path in sight. Retracing our steps is a constant project for the first part of our journey away from the horizon and into the sparse forest, but the moon increasingly imparts its light in subtle ways. We move slow and stop often. Over time the path moves deeper into the woods and jags back after a modest saddle with views of Millbrook Mountain rising high as a massive dark feature with a sheer vertical rise of more than 500 feet above its base in the Wallkill Valley below. We continue to wind slowly inland and southwest with the trail as the luminance begins to gather. Eventually, over the long span of bumbling time, the path descends into a depression, with a moister, cooler feeling to the air, and hemlock and black gum trees dispersed in a mixed forest. In a few weeks, this area will be ablaze with the intense reds of blueberry bushes and gum trees in autumn, but for now it opens the trail into a highly welcomed transition. The open forest feeling that pulls the trail into its spreading oasis is welcome. The glade is fully illuminated by the moon. There is normally a homey feeling projected here, even on a harshly lit summer afternoon— but tonight the plot is simply sacred in its sublime beauty. The region’s huckleberry and wild blueberry understory combines with standing dead trees, fallen, debarked trunks, and lichen-covered bark to welcome a small party of erratic boulders— each of which takes on a shimmering, self-luminous quality, though lichen and moss attempt to disguise the glow. Every object is properly dispersed in a fortunate and open arrangement to receive the mysterious mother light. The only other time that one can feel such a strange, almost shimmering self-luminant quality from objects in the environment is during the attenuated light of an eclipse. It is easy to see, or rather, to feel directly how such transitory moments take on the status of significance, or sacred spaces, to a consciousness fully submerged in the environment.
Moonlight offers a tentative reality compared to the sun’s everyday world. Light and shadow are free to dance upon the earth without imperative to conform to its contours. By virtue of that freedom, it casts an unreal world. Sunlight does not possess such freedom. So bound to the texture and form of the objects that it discloses, the sun’s light is captured as an embedded feature of their reality at the very same time that it discloses them. Abandoning its freedom to that of the visible, sunlight gains concrete submersion into the physicality of all that it makes evident. Color and texture are loaned qualities from that borrowed existence. Moonlight is not reduced to the function of disclosing objects. It hovers in the renewed agency of a vibrating world— a world enacted and balanced between existence as sheer luminance and existence as illuminant thing. It is at once substance and freedom. It is at once function and object. The glowing body of the moon reminds us of that mysterious balance when we lift our eyes in this moonlit glade to greet the source of the shimmering beauty it casts before us.