My New Year’s resolution is to not allow political despair to affect the allure of the moon. Yesterday at about 4:30 in the afternoon, just before dark here in late December Vermont, the moon appeared to be wrapped in gauze. Looking out my farm¬house’s kitchen window, I saw small, dark clouds drift across the moon. I saw a single crow perched on a snow-lined branch of a threadbare apple tree, as if auditioning for a haiku. When darkness finally hid the crow, I still heard it calling, perhaps to other crows, per¬haps to the moon, perhaps to nothing. I love Thomas Hardy’s journal entry, “If one suffers an infirmity of the spirit, be drawn out onto the moonlit fields, as if one’s life depended on it.”
One can tailor specific elegiacal feelings toward different sentient beings. I thought back to late December l997, when, stepping out one early evening from the Adamant Co-Op, I saw by moonlight a heron prowling a series of jig-saw puzzle shapes of open water, each edged in ice, on Sodom Pond. Hunting by moonlight in winter was some¬thing I’d only ever seen herons do at Point Reyes National Seashore, in northern California. But given that this moon-drenched landscape was Vermont in winter, naturally I wondered at the heron’s not having migrated south yet. Might this bird have been injured or ill, or perhaps simply too old to travel – all scenarios that must occur in nature. Had it lingered behind on its own mysterious volition?
Anyway, that night, the spectral allure of moonlight on Sodom Pond kept me awake. At three in the morning, I bundled up and drove back there. No heron was to be seen, though I found it the next day, and the three after that, on Sodom Pond, its drab blue against a stark background. On the fifth day, it wasn’t there. Putting aside a natural inclination toward skeptical thought, my practical question was, could this splendid, warm-blooded creature survive temperatures that had, on the most recent night, dropped below zero? If it had survived, if perhaps not a miracle, it was at least a precarious anomaly.
“Just because you didn’t see it fly south doesn’t mean it didn’t,” my eight-year-old daughter said, which put things, for a moment, into solacing perspective. She’d said it as a kind of admonition: why only invest optimism in things you can actually see? Most probably, the insistences of its ancient instincts kicked in, and the heron made its way to warmer climes. Or it didn’t. On the fifth day of searching for the heron, I took notice of bobcat tracks near the wind-rattled dry cattails along the shore.
In my late twenties, when I was first working in linguistic folklore in Arviat, a village right on Hudson Bay, there was, in the signature crepuscular light of that demographic in November, a moment when I was standing with an elderly Inuit man named Thomas Iootna, renowned particularly for his soapstone sculptures of owls and owl-spirit figures. “Oh,” Thomas Iootna said, and pointed to where a hefty male polar bear, who seemed to have materialized right out of the windblown snow, was sauntering between rock outcroppings toward the frozen expanse of Hudson Bay. Maybe he was journeying out to hunt seals by moonlight; that does happen. We were close enough to hear his snort-breaths. “If he stands up to sniff the wind,” Thomas said, “I will have to use my rifle.” I had a cordial relationship with Thomas, and said, “Please do, because some day I’d like to have a wife.” “I know just the one for you,” he said. “My cousin, Mary. She lost her husband about 50 years ago. She’s very nice.” It was the first time I’d had a conversation which was accompanied by my heart pounding in my ears. What is more, Thomas now wanted to speak, urgently as if to distraction, about his cousin Mary’s husband – his skills and exploits, his stalwart ability to provide for his family, his tragic early death, and so on. I finally sputtered, “Thomas, is this what we should be talking about right now?” The polar bear rose on its haunches, sniffing the wind. “Well, if you’re going to die, at least you know things about my cousin’s husband,” he said. He laughed quite loudly and removed his rifle from its scabbard.
The white bear (explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson referred to polar bears as “the frightening epitome of arctic certitude”), here and there dingily splotched, most likely from having foraged in the garbage dump, all four paws presently set on the ground, took a few slow steps in our direction. Clearly, Thomas didn’t think this bear merely feigned interest, because he placed a shot to its left, but mercifully just to its left. “Bears can move so fast,” Thomas remarked, “you might as well call it flying.” With a second, echoing shot, also expertly to its left, the bear stopped in its tracks. Which is when I noticed the full moon. The bear then rose to its full height; it was an enormous animal. With its right paw, it swatted the air once, as if the whole planet was a badminton shuttlecock. Thomas said, “This morning I oiled my rifle.”
Thomas shot again, this time to the bear’s right. The bear dropped to all fours, let out a low guttural groan, turned and disappeared behind the boulders, perhaps to quickly devise a new round-about stalking strategy. Every Inuit child in Arviat knew that talent of local bears. Thomas kept his rifle free of its scabbard, as we set out toward Arviat. For 50 or so meters, I walked backwards, then frequently looked back over my shoulder, nearly all the way to town. The moment Thomas stepped into his house, he imitated me doing this; his wife Ruth was entertained. “As if that would keep a bear away!” his wife said. They both laughed almost until they cried. Now, it would be almost superciliously “poetic” to suggest that it was the moon that fixed itself most vividly in my memory of the incident I just mentioned. When actually, it was the erasure of the moon, when the bear stood up and blocked it from view. (Peter Matthiessen once told me the only time he ever felt true fear in his wildlife experiences was when he was walking from the Churchill Hotel to the post office in Churchill, Manitoba, and a male polar bear appeared from behind the Hudson Bay Company store, verring toward him in the street. Things turned out fine; Peter wrote a lot of books after that.) Yet somehow, not exactly at the time, and yet not long after, I did think that particular tableaux, polar bear and moon framed by big gray boulders, almost had to be a once-in a-lifetime thing for me. And of course, it was. Later the same night, yet again enduring Thomas’s comical imitation of me craning my head around to look back at the polar bear – this time in front of his children, and cousin Mary – I knew I’d haplessly earned my singular reputation in that household. I slept on a cot in their kitchen, near the coal stove, and my dream recapitulated the day’s big event, except that in it, I walked toward the moon, which meant walking toward the bear. The next morning, indulgently, I told Ruth about this dream. Without detectable irony, she said, “Lucky my husband was with you yesterday.”
My good, curmudgeonly Vermont neighbor for many years, Maurice Persons, who’d worked in the Barre granite quarries, told me straight out that he thought the 1969 television reports of astronauts on the moon were one big hoax. A month later, I showed him a drawing by Thomas Iootna, originally done in his studio in the Arviak Art Cooperative, where he also carved soapstone. The drawing depicted an Inuit man standing – what more striking evocation of human isolation? – on the moon. “This man behaved badly, and a powerful shaman exiled him to the moon,” I said. “Now that I believe,” Maurice said.
On a desk in my writing cabin, I have a framed photograph of a soapstone sculpture carved by Thomas Iootna in 1980, two years before he died. The piece itself is in a private collection in Vancouver. It depicts a man wearing a thick coat, hood pulled up over his head, heavy leggings, mukluks. His feet are pointing in one direction, but he’s craning his head and neck to look behind. Directly in front of him stands a polar bear, a rifle crosswise in its mouth. Atop a thin column of whale-bone affixed to the soapstone base, at an elevation a few inches above the bear, hovers a whale-bone full moon.
Howard Norman’s forthcoming novel, set mostly in Vermont, is The Ghost Clause.