Two months ago, full moon found me up Mount Buffalo, camping near Lake Catani. Last month it found me at the top of my street, out to admire the street lights of nearby suburbs stretched out below me. Tonight, it found me walking in the Dandenong Ranges, admiring the ghostly tree ferns and gums.

Walking at night, whether in moonlight, starlight, or complete dark, is probably not something our modern urban life-style encourages (even the simple street lights in my outer suburb outshine the full moon). But it’s something I’ve been trying to do more of, since it provides peace and solitude in a very different way from daylight hiking. And writing about it also provides a slight break from a stream of religious posts (though it’s not entirely free from them: stick round for the religious conclusions).

Tonight it was 8°C, and the mist was lying low in the dip of the road, curiously lit up by the street lights. I could see my breath in front of me, and the inviting moonlight led me along the road.

I’ve walked in the Dandenong Ranges at night without a torch, but never before in full moon, and it’s a completely different experience. The gums and the tree ferns seem a brilliant white, and there is a very sharp distinction between shadow and direct light. Colours are largely absent. If I looked very closely at the ferns I seemed to see a faint green, but I was unable to tell whether that was just because I expected to see green, or whether I was really seeing it.

The moon was quite bright enough to give me a distinct shadow (which unfortunately sometimes made it more difficult to see where I was going). And the place was all mine: No signs of any other humans, and few signs of any birds or wildlife, though at one point a large animal crossed the trail (probably a deer). I didn’t even see any rabbits, though there are usually quite a few out at Ferntree Gully Picnic Ground at night.

Rewinding to March, the night that I was up Mount Buffalo was the Monday night that had been Labour Day. The majority of the tourist hordes had either retreated to the valley or returned to jobs in Melbourne, and the main tourist road was all mine, with not a single car to disturb me. Around 9:30, I started off as I was (still in shorts, with no water) with the simple aim of having a look at the lake in moonlight.
It had rained heavily a couple of hours before, but was nearly cloudless by the time I was out walking. The mist rising from the lake looked impressive under moonlight, and if I used my torch I could see my breath.

While looking over at the lake, my log states:

It got bitterly cold after I got out from under the shelter of the trees (I’m still in shorts, by the way). My fingers are freezing. I may well decide very soon that I’m sick of this and go back.

Seeing as I didn’t get back till after midnight, it’s clear that I didn’t turn around. Sometimes I wonder why I put myself through things like this, but the answer is really that, whatever I may say, I do it because I enjoy it, and because it compels me to continue. I love the peace, the solitude, and the completely different appearance of a known landscape under a different lighting. In fact, it can be very difficult for me to tear myself away and turn around rather than carrying on the walk to ridiculous hours of the night. In this case, when I got to the tourist road, the strange patterns of the moonlight called me on, and I just started walking up and kept going, reflecting all the while on what actually drew me to be there.

At times, I heard the dingoes howling, and saw the wombats were out and active. I’ve always assumed they were slow, lumbering creatures, but they surprised me by how fast they moved and how aggressively they could act if they felt I was too close. Don’t mess with a wombat!

When I got back to the campground a fellow camper talked about petting the wombats. All I can say is that either he was dealing with different wombats from me, or he had a lot more confidence that their bark is worse than their bite than I did (I also don’t think it complies with any “Keeping the wildlife wild” directives).

More generally, walking in the wild at night takes you away from civilisation, and provides a perfect chance for reflection. It can be particularly interesting doing it in an urban area, since sometimes you can see the moon or a few stars, but other times the main draw is the view of street lights. And it can be surprisingly disorienting returning to civilisation. I find there’s a real culture shock even coming out of the solitude to a road with a few street lights and a solitary car’s headlights. It’s just so much brighter and more regular.

But the full moon is a particular draw, and the full moon leads me on to the religious side of this post. I was never much into the touchy-feely of emotion rather than logic, but the moon is a thing of beauty, and it was involved in the most deeply spiritual experience I can still remember. There was a time, probably 6 or 7 years ago, when I was struggling. Life was feeling dark, and doubt was starting to extend its cold fingers into my previously unassailable confidence that God was there and was listening. I was kneeling near the window praying, and was near giving up after yet another lengthy prayer session going nowhere, when suddenly the light of the full moon landed on me. It felt like an answer to darkness and doubt: new light had entered into my life.

That was when I first started watching the cycles of the moon and spending some moonlit evenings in a nearby reserve praying, meditating, and thinking about my life. Doing this allowed me to recapture some of that spirit. It allowed me to feel God a little nearer, and it also allowed me to express my feelings of anguish and frustration that in spite of my efforts I wasn’t getting anywhere.

But the feeling did not last, and perhaps it could not last. Why not? Because I knew too much. I knew that the time of moonrise and moonset is completely predictable. The light of the moon was going to come through the window at that time whether or not I was there. It was hard to keep that belief that it was a sign from God month after month, since it felt like I was the one reading a spiritual meaning into an event that was both natural and predictable.

Last year I saw a genuine moon rock in the Deep Space Centre near Canberra. It’s a reminder that humanity have set foot on the moon (nearly 50 years ago, in fact - long before my time). And that in its turn is a reminder that the moon is a part of Earth’s story in a way that no other planet or star is. Owing to its essentially identical oxygen isotopic ratios, it is almost certain that it was formed from Earth at some point in the distant past. Sitting up there, it controls the tides. It circles the Earth, close enough to form a reflector which can drown out bright but distant stars, and also close enough for NASA to reach it with less than a decade of preparation and with only a few days’ journey across space.

Pragmatically, the moon is an important part of earth’s story. And its likely origin and role doesn’t give me the picture of a specially created “lesser light” - though the full moon does rule the night sky very effectively. Nor does it give me confidence in the prophesied signs in the sun, moon, and stars. I’ve seen a couple of the alleged “blood moons” in the recent tetrad of eclipses. They look a nice red (though nowhere near as deep red as I would expect for a blood moon). However, they leave me completely unconvinced that they are a sign of God pulling the strings in the background. We can predict these eclipses in advance because they follow natural laws, just the same as my spiritual experience did.

Over many thousands of years humans have looked to the moon and seen something greater and more powerful than just a nearby lump of rock reflecting the light of the sun. Some have even worshipped it. But I think we have learned enough to move past that stage.

However, to me the moon still remains a varied and shifting thing of beauty, appearing through the month in different shapes and at different times. It’s worth noticing, whether it’s a thin crescent, a full moon shining from a clear sky, a bright circle behind clouds with a fantastic halo, or even a moon set against the blue sky in daylight. Unfortunately, it does mask the beauty of the stars, so the new moon and the late rising moon also have their places. But overall, it’s great that we have it.

If you haven’t been on a moonlit walk recently, try it. You might find, like me, that you love it, and that it gives a different perspective on life.