Friday, September 30, 2005

Waiting for Light

Predawn fog Posted by Picasa
"We've got the Milky Way. And earthshine to die for."

Mary knows this but she steps out onto the porch anyway. She'd already seen them -- Milky Way, scimitar moon, bright red bead of Mars -- as she stood on the driveway just a few minutes earlier with the paper tucked under her arm, her long neck craned. At 5:30 in the morning her relentless metabolism has driven her toward food. I'd awakened to the strong, sweet tang of onions....

I would take my nap later, after she had gone back to bed. After a while I pad outside again, this time with the camera, to see what if anything I can accomplish without a tripod since the one for our telescope is not compatible. Until I have enough light, I lean as securely as I can against stable objects and hold my breath, listening to the lazy whirr of glacial shutter speed.

It's no use. My heart still beats, vibrating me.

The moon continues to inch away from the predawn east. In about two minutes from my earthbound perspective it has moved the distance of its own diameter on its slow climb up the sky. Yellow streetlamps glow. Dark clots of trees begin to gain murky definition.

Then I see the fog, which adds smoky softness and a natural blur to an image rendered less than crisp by the limitations of body and machine. Technical difficulties imitate life.

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The dark makes me cautious as I round the house barefoot, keeping to the cement walkway -- likely the fire ants are asleep but I take no chances beyond being unshod. Spiderweb filaments try to catch me, clinging to my arm as I round corners. A large flying insect buzzes first one ear and then the other and takes off, then returns: My spot. Go away. After a while I do.

The light increases; I take more pictures of the moon. It still blurs, flitting around the viewfinder, a moth unwilling to be trapped.

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When I next look down at the portulaca they are just beginning to open, squinting in a flash photo, still hugging their petals to themselves. Sleepy children. The white one dares to peek at the bedside clock, in this case the brightening blue overhead, anticipating its golden alarm of sun.

I make my way carefully to the front of the house. Even barefoot I can and have accidentally crushed snails; now I want to take a portrait of one. I marvel at their unhurried progress, eyestalks wavering with inquisitive grace in the thick air. Their luscious slickness.

I search in vain for one of the ubiquitous white snails out of its shell but instead encounter
, for the first time since we arrived here, a brown beauty with perhaps 7mm-diameter housing. Its movements are almost imperceptible. I pop up the flash.

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Two of my favorite movies include snails. In the opening of Silent Running, Joan Baez sings "Rejoice in the Sun" as a snail journeys through foliage, filling the screen. (Peter Schickele, of "PDQ Bach" fame, had composed the film score in a decidedly different style than what marks his hilarious send-ups of classical music. And I believe the Star Wars character R2D2 owes its existence at least in part to the drones Huey, Dewey, and Louie from this years-earlier film.)

The other movie, Microcosmos, is filmed entirely from "bugs'-eye view." In one scene two burgundy snails mate, accompanied by opera. For me it is one of the most ecstatic moments in a movie that holds me spellbound every time I watch it.

The sky continues to brighten, the sun just short of breaching the horizon. At last I can catch the floating crescent with a minimum of blur, though its earthshine has been washed out. Back at my computer I cheat, running time backwards as I deepen the digital sky. I fiddle with color balance until I can tease out what seems to be a hint of craters by the terminator, the threshold between light and dark.

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The lack of earthshine unmasks my ruse. Perhaps it's time to get a tripod.

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(This image, captured from, shows the moon's phase about 7 hours after I took the above photo. Sunrise occurred at 7:22 AM, about 79-1/2 hours before New Moon, which will also herald Rosh Hashanah.)

After-post addendum: I've learned that this New Moon will also mark the beginning of Ramadan.


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