I recently witnessed two unusual events. Unusual in themselves, first; then doubly unusual because, although random in nature, they were mysteriously connected.
The first event took place in the waiting room of a barbershop in Italy. As I was leafing through the many newspapers on the coffee table, my attention was drawn to a press text published in the Readers’ Voice section of the weekly magazine La Piazzetta. I would say, right away, that the oddity that jumped out at me was the signature: Anonymous. Intrigued, I read the text that I quote below.
Ah Moon, if you only knew! I no longer believe in you! I no longer believe that thanks to some weird influxes you can, at your whim, make the lettuce whip up, mushrooms grow or beech wood rot. I no longer believe that the fate of the bottles of wine stored to age in deep, dark cellars, depends on the shape your lit face had at the very instant of their bottling; as if the vintner, in bottling wine, also bottled good or bad moon germs, capable of making good or bad the quality of that wine forever.
Nor do I any longer believe in the great basket of “folk wisdom” from which generations of good people drew, and still draw, cause-effect relationships between your phases, Moon, and the weather to come.
I can no longer believe that your distant presence transmits down here arcane vibrations, benign or malignant; and even at the cost of offending centuries of honest gullibility, I have finally decided, Moon, to consider you for what you are: a huge, more or less enlightened pebble, and nothing else.
Everything about this text was strange. The high style; the unconventional thoughts; the signature. But the element that struck me most was the almost painful sincerity of the repeated “I no longer believe…” professed by the anonymous columnist. What could be the reason that had prompted him to challenge a whole packet of popular beliefs which millions of men and women blindly rely on?
The second event, so unusual that it still gives me the chills, took place a few months later, always in Italy, in the waiting room of a small animal vet.
On the inevitable coffee table there was only an old copy of La Piazzetta. On the front page, clearly framed, a small insert warned readers that:
Tonight, on TeleCollina, a specialized journalist will interview the anonymous author of the text published in our issue 17 that has caused such a stir and so many comments from readers. Viewers are warned that the interviewee has asked, and has been given the opportunity, to answer the questions with a covered face.
I had missed it. Fortunately, TeleCollina informed me of a free podcast. Having obtained the podcast, I transcribed it and reproduce the verbatim below.
Interviewer. Why do you insist on expressing yourself anonymously? Don’t you have the courage of your convictions?
Anonymous. I know the “People of the Moon” well. In Italy they are tens of millions: let’s say the vast majority. Among them there are not only housewives and pensioners. There are also professors, left-wing intellectuals, readers of Repubblica, bankers, trade unionists, craftsmen, engineers, lawyers, notaries, pacifists, cardinals, Nobel Prize winners, songwriters, loan sharks, mountaineers, forest rangers, editors of mountain and sea magazines… Old and young, men and women, rich and poor. Lunar beliefs are the transversal binder of Italian society. This being said, the few who express in public the ideas I profess, risk to alienate the whole of Italian society. But there is worse. Within the ranks of the People of the Moon are hiding some fundamentalists – real Taliban – who have sworn to punish corporally those who do not share their lunar beliefs. They have such hazel sticks! And I have no intention of feeling them on my back. I am a freethinker, not a martyr.
Interviewer. Very well; as you see, we have accepted your conditions. To get straight to the point, and if I have understood you correctly, you deny that the different phases of the moon can influence many natural processes, such as those relating to plant physiology: sowing, growth, transplantation, germination…; those pertaining to human physiology: hair and nail growth, ovarian cycles, sex of the unborn, fertility, wound healing…; and other varied atmospheric and industrial processes: the weather it will make, the hardening of cement, the whiteness of laundry, the enrichment of natural uranium… Is this so?
Interviewer. On what arguments does your “non-belief” rest? Do you have scientific evidence that the phases of the moon do not have any effect on, for example, the growth of lettuce, which has been demonstrated time and time again?
Anonymous. And you, do you have scientific evidence that they do?
Interviewer. Very much so. A recent poll shows that 98.83% of the people surveyed, drawn by lot, believe so. Moreover, the lunar effects are held to be factual and indisputable by all greengrocers, by all our elders, by Brother Devin and, above all, by the “popular wisdom” which has little chance of being wrong. Convinced now?
Anonymous. Popular wisdom says that to keep a cold at bay there is no better remedy than to have a horse chestnut in your pocket; that to cure styes you have to look in a bottle of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil; that to get rid of warts you have to throw a laurel leaf off a bridge; and that to avoid catching a nasty flu it is imperative to wear a dried rabbit’s foot under your waistcoat.
(The Interviewer and the Anonymous were sticking to their respective positions and the interview could have gone on for hours. With only twenty minutes to go, the Interviewer decided that, instead of dwelling on side issues he should launch the ultimate, unbeatable attack right away.)
Interviewer. I see that you are taking refuge in caricature to avoid confrontation. Good. So, tell me: you, who don’t believe in the moon, do you believe, or not, in tides? Do you, or do you not believe that the moon is capable of lifting an entire ocean several meters? Or would you have the courage to say that the moon has nothing to do with tides?
Why are you so silent now? You feel trapped, don’t you? You who seem to have an answer to everything, answer a bit about the tides… (long pause). What about them? The tides? Huh?… Huh?… You know very well that you can’t answer “no”. And so, if the moon is capable of lifting an entire ocean several meters, it may well raise the sap of lettuce, radishes and parsley.
Why don’t you answer?
Anonymous. Oh, dear me! The tides! You too, like all the others! What is it with everyone and these tides? What is it? The password of the People of the Moon? All right… yes… yes: the moon is involved in the phenomenon of the tides.
Interviewer. See that it wasn’t so hard! You will therefore agree that the same lunar force that causes the tides can also facilitate the growth of vegetables!
Anonymous. No, unfortunately I don’t.
Interviewer. I beg your pardon? Do you still want to argue?
Anonymous. The problem is that the lunar force that causes the tides is the gravitational force.
Interviewer. Thank you for that information. I don’t see where the problem is. The same gravitational force that pulls up the entire ocean can pull up the vital sap of lettuce leaves. Or perhaps you have other fallacies in store?
Anonymous. The problem is that the lunar gravitational force is due to the “mass” of the moon. It is moon’s mass that exerts a gravitational pull on the oceanic masses, causing them to rise.
Interviewer. Cheer! Thirty out of thirty with mention “very good” in physics! But I still don’t see where the problem lies: the mass of the moon that lifts the ocean can thus lift the mass of the water within the lettuce!
Anonymous. Yes, that sounds logical, I have to admit; but there is a second problem. The mass of the moon remains the same: whether it is fully lit (as in the full moon), half-lit (on one side or the other, as in the quarter moons), or not lit at all (as in the new moon). And so, continuing the logical thread, if the mass of the moon were to attract the sap of the lettuce upwards, it should attract it as much in full moon as in new moon, as much in waning moon as in waxing moon. That is to say, regardless of the phases of the moon. The opposite of what claim the People of the Moon to which you seem determined to lend a hand.
(The reasoning seemed correct. The lunar attraction exerted on any terrestrial object could not depend on whether the lunar surface was more or less lit. This “had” to be admitted. But the anonymous interviewee seemed determined to continue his argument.)
The previous argument would be sufficient to conclude that the alleged effects of the lunar phases have nothing to do with the phenomenon of the tides. But let’s move on, there’s better.
You know that the tidal phenomenon is a periodic phenomenon: high tide, low tide, high tide, low tide… At high tide, the ocean surface rises, then, at low tide, it falls, and so on. Without going into the details of why this phenomenon occurs, I would like to draw your attention to its “duration”. You are well aware that the time between two high tides – as well as between two low ones – is about twelve hours. In other words, if at a certain time there is high tide, six hours later there will be low tide, six hours later high tide, six hours later low tide… and so on. Bottom line: if the effect of the moon on the growth of lettuce depended on the same type of lunar force that causes the tides, the lettuce would grow fast for six hours, slowly over the next six hours, fast again for six hours, slowly again over the next six hours… and so on. This has nothing to do with the phases of the moon, which, as you well know, follow each other with a period of 29.5 or 27.3 days, depending on whether you take a geocentric or sidereal reference system. Do you follow me? In short, although it is true that the moon has something to do with the tides, the lunar phases – so dear to the People of the Moon – have absolutely nothing to do with them.
(A deaf anger was visibly beginning to rise in the Interviewer’s eyes. The Anonymous was playing the know-it-all, taking him for a fool and with him the whole People of the Moon. According to his reasoning, there could be no relationship between the tides and the biological effects of the moon phases. A dangerous Holocaust denier, probably; certainly a conspiracy theorist, perhaps even a Flat Earther. The Interviewer understood that in order not to lose face, he had to stop the interview and do some more research. The problem was that he had to be able to interrupt it…)
One could still abound about it. You know that in some places of France – such as on the Breton coasts – the high tide makes the ocean rise by several meters, sometimes more than fifteen, whereas in other places – such as on the Mediterranean coasts – the difference between high and low tide is only a few centimeters. Strange, isn’t it?
But there is an even stranger phenomenon. On the same Breton coasts, where the ocean suffers so paradoxically from the pull of the moon, the level of the lakes, ponds and swimming pools, unperturbed, does not move by a thousandth of a millimeter. Why does this happen?
Listen to me: forget the tides. This is a phenomenon that is perfectly explainable from a physical point of view, but it is very complex, and I don’t want to bore you with technical explanations in which, in addition to the universal gravitational force, other forces would have to be brought into play, such as the “Coriolis force”, with which you are probably not familiar, with the centrifugal force due to the rotation of the Earth, the depth of the oceans and, more generally, the geometry of the oceans and the continents. Anyway, if the principle that determines the growth of vegetables were the same as the one that determines the tides, on the Breton coasts lettuces should grow as high as a three-storey house! Hahaha! Don’t blame me: I’m kidding…
Interviewer. Stop being insolent and admit, once and for all, that there are still unknown phenomena and that this evidence is shared by many scientists of a much higher caliber than yours. Or are you going to tell me that everything is known, that everything is explainable, that there are no pockets of mystery?
Anonymous. Ah, the mystery! The riddle! The arcana! Supernatural vibes! If the People of the Moon always expressed itself in these terms everything would be easier. The problem is that every member of this People, sooner or later, pulls the tides out of his hat. This has also happened to you. It’s extremely irritating. That is why I wanted to dwell a bit on the physical phenomenon of the tides: to convince you that this phenomenon has nothing to do with the alleged effects of the “phases” of the moon. I hope I managed in convincing you.
Interviewer. All right, let’s remove the tides. But the mystery remains. So why deny outright, as you do, that the phases of the moon, through some mysterious influx, can influence natural processes? I know persons, worthy of the utmost trust, who can provide irrefutable data on these effects. There are even whole books about the moon’s effects on crops. If you agree, I will document this more fully and we will meet at a later date, at this same place. Would you therefore accept a second interview? A second exchange of views? A second lively debate?
Anonymous. With pleasure; on condition, however, that we no longer waste time in talking about tides. Is that all right? But first, please read the following poem which I found in the 1997 edition of the Calendrier du Jardinier Provençal. The author’s name is M. Dulard, from the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Marseille. The poem was written in 1761. We are in France, right in the middle of the magic Century of Enlightenment.
C’est du fond du terrain plus ou moins consulté,
que dépend l’abondance ou la stérilité;
c’est là leur origine et leur cause certaine,
non la forme inégale et l’influence vaine
du globe lumineux qui préside à la nuit
et règle les travaux du laboureur séduit.
Préjugé ridicule, erreur héréditaire
dont le peuple niais est encore tributaire;
que la saine physique apprend à dédaigner
et des esprits pourtant, ne peut déraciner.
It is from the bottom of the field, more or less ploughed,
that abundance or sterility depends;
that is their origin and their certain cause,
not the unequal aspect and the vain influence
of the luminous globe which presides over the night
and regulates the labors of the seduced ploughman.
Ridiculous prejudice, hereditary error
of which the naïve people are still tributary;
which sound physics teaches to disdain
but from the minds, however, it cannot uproot.
The last two lines are particularly interesting, aren’t they? As you see, the two “Peoples” were already clashing in the past and I do not think it is possible to reach an agreement right now. Unfortunately, it is only a matter of choosing one’s camp: that of rationalism or that of superstition.
Interviewer. Don’t worry. I know where to go to find the arguments that will force even a sceptic like you to change his mind. I’ll go up into the mountains and interview old Occitan mountaineers who see things we don’t see, who hear things we don’t hear, and who play little magic accordions that convince even the most skeptical. Will you allow me to savor the victory as of now?
Anonymous. But of course! And, will you allow me to tell you an anecdote that has been reported to me as true?
Interviewer. Let’s hear it.
Anonymous. A fur trapper is preparing for the great Canadian winter in a log cabin in the north. Next to the cabin is a pile of wood ready to be used.
An old Indian wrapped in furs passes by. « Hey, Chief! Is it going to be a hard winter? » asks the trapper.
The old Indian looks to the right, looks to the left, moves his head thoughtfully, then replies: « Hard winter! »
“I’d better chop some more wood” thinks the trapper. And his woodpile rises and widens by a good meter.
A few days go by, and then, one morning, the old Indian wrapped in furs appears again. « Hey, Chief! Is it going to be a hard winter? » asks the trapper.
The old Indian looks to the right, looks to the left, moves his head a few times, thoughtfully, and then answers: « Very hard winter! »
“I’d better chop more wood” thinks the trapper. And his woodpile rises and widens by a good two meters. “That should be enough” the trapper says to himself. “This is not the first winter I’ve spent in this place and I’ve never had such a huge stockpile of wood.”
But behold, another morning, the same old Indian came from the same snowy path. « Hey, Chief! Is it going to be a hard winter? » asks the trapper.
The old Indian looks to the right, looks to the left, somberly shakes his head, uneasy, and then answers: « Very, very, very hard winter! »
The amazed trapper then approaches the old man and asks: « You certainly see things we do not see, and hear things we do not hear. So, tell me, Chief: what are the mysterious signs of nature that make you foresee an exceptionally harsh winter? »
The Chief is old and stooped, but his face is noble and his speech solemn: « When White Man chops a lot of wood, very harsh winter! »
Interviewer. Laughs best who laughs last; don’t forget it! Forward, People of the Moon! We will triumph! On to our next meeting, then?
Anonymous. With pleasure. Oh, I forgot: would you mind if the next interview could take place on the eighth day of the waning moon, ascendant Sagittarius? It is said that this is the best time for honest and unbiased discussions.
Of course, I got hold of all the issues of La Piazzetta following the interview. Nothing. Press silence. A stone on it. A tombstone. Obviously, the editorial staff of the weekly had decided to censor all the comments they had received. There are arguments that, for a higher “good”, should be kept secret. Pandora knows something about it.
Watchwords: “May the unfortunate episode of lunar skepticism be quickly forgotten”, “Attempt to disturb public order through the dissemination of fake news”, “Let’s return to the serenity of before”, “Let’s all repeat in chorus, and without hesitation, that the phases of the moon do have a marked effect on the world we live in.”
No sooner said than done. The dominant thinking conveyed by the Interviewer had vanquished the conspiration-driven, narrow-minded, negationist and FlatEarthist thinking of the Anonymous columnist. And this without resorting to the hazel sticks dear to the Moon fundamentalists.
And I? I have to admit that throughout the course of the interview, my mind had always sided with the clear spirit of the masked Anonymous, of the Lunar Negationist.
And yet… I remember reading in Margutte’s columns that Ladies Maddalena and Gabriella had personally communicated with the Moon after she had silently entered their respective bedrooms. Maddalena had even managed to intercept the intimate dialogues between the Moon and the Mountain. She had painted them with sensitivity but, out of respect, she had not transcribed them. So, we will never know what the Moon and the Mountain said to each other.
Not to mention the crowd of other minor story tellers, who all reported in their writings their nocturnal escapades with Lady Moon: Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Leopardi…
But then… will there be anything “spiritual” in our faithful satellite?
For sure not on her surface, not on her skin. Poor skin of our Lady Moon! Stony, dry, wrinkled, pockmarked, hostile. And not just on her front side. Her back side is also tremendously martyred. The Universe has been throwing stones to her for more than four billion years.
However, … Why then does “folk wisdom” define that early phase of a loving couple’s relationship (when everything seems carefree and happy) as the honeymoon? OK for honey; but what about moon? Did they associate these two nouns unknowingly, or is there “something” underneath?
Did they mean, without even imagining it, that there is honey beneath the tortured skin of our pale Lady? Inside her body? A magic honey that gives off arcane, loving emanations? The laws of universal gravitation would still be respected. Who could then rule it out?
Sometimes, in my moments of weakness which are becoming more and more frequent, I dream to hide myself in the warmth of the folds of the People of the Moon. But I’m not yet ready. Not yet… not yet…
For the time being, I merely added to the original title of this short story: StonyMoon, its mallow counterpart: HoneyMoon, followed by a question mark. Just to sweeten the bitterness of the pristine title a bit.
HERE the Italian version
HERE the French version