On Wobbling Moons and Disciplines

I’m a sucker for astronomical clickbait. “The Moon is Wobbling!” got me. My world tilted on its axis when I discovered the rock that existed peripherally at the foggy edges of perception is a bit like a staggering drunk on his way home from the pub: reliably unstable on his feet, creating mild annoyance in his wake of patterned, wobbling inebriation. I reach my hand into the night sky to steady the fool moon above me, but my palm is comically small in relation to the monstrosity that looms, cerise-smogged and engorged—an optical illusion brought about by the Caldor fire’s smoke that distorts everything, from cellular regeneration to the size of the moon on a mild September evening.

In the article, a Moon Activities for Dummies edition that links to a more erudite offering for the Mensa readers also trolling the Internet for intellectually stimulating clickbait, I read that the moon oscillates around Earth at a tilt (to be more Mensa-like, its tilt places the moon at a five-degree incline to the Earth’s orbital path around our sun). The moon’s orbital path’s angle to Earth changes over time, coming from such a position that it yanks one of the day’s two high tides a bit higher than the other— “wobbling” the chosen inflammatory gerund on social media platforms and my favorite clickbait sites—and completes its full correcting cycle every 18.6 years.

I’m told that there’s nothing groundbreaking about the news splashed across CNN and The New York Times. NASA reports we’ve known about the wobbling since 1728—a Leap Year—when James Bradley observed, and postulated the reason for, astronomical nutation, the phenomenon which causes the orientation of the axis of rotation of a spinning astronomical object—a moon, for instance—to vary over time.

We nutate, too. The Gregorian calendar requires the precession of a Leap Year every four years to make up for our days’ wobble. We nutate and we recover, spinning around a human contraption seeking to make sense of our temporality in the universe—a calendar, days, Tuesdays and Sundays and Labor Days—by dividing it up into little boxes and fixing our pattern, every four years, to make up for our tilted ordering of things. We compensate for the chaos we create, give February an extra day, and the world goes on spinning—as it would without Leap Year and Tuesdays. We humans fool ourselves into a sense of control. The moon’s wobble will disprove it all.

****

May 31, 1728: while James Bradley busied himself with his telescope, the Edinburghian William Hogg approached the Royal Bank of Scotland with a novel idea: the bank overdraft. The Royal Bank of Scotland extended cash credit for Hogg to his creditors through the bank until Hogg, a merchant, could fill his empty accounts with fresh, expected profits. Spend now, pay later. Overextending, overusing, and creating a system to make up the difference—human beings at our finite finest.

I don’t wish to simplify the narrative or overlook the obvious economic benefits within a capitalist marketplace of the overdraft. It helped Hogg out, and it’s helping others now. But the overdraft, a Leap Year, the discovering of the moon’s wobble—1728 was a year too full of the continued discovery of natural consequences (if the moon is acted upon by other gravitational forces, it will nutate) and the invention, or observance, of human efforts to evade them.

The moon—a pebble, really, in the grand cosmos—has been doing its wobble always, forever. Tides swing back and forth along the shores, volcanic magma bubbles up and down in igneous pipelines beneath steaming earth, nights are lit and left dark, and the moon wobbles on. The good with the bad, I suppose. The moon has taught me to take the good with the bad. Tides go out, volcanoes go quiet, light waxes brighter. Things settle down if we only wait, and let the moon do its thing. It’s what we do in the waiting, though, that gets us when the tide comes in, and further in, still.

And what have we been doing? Taking the good, leaving the bad. We’ve been terraforming to create an anti-planet, so perhaps vastumforming is more accurate, if my elementary Latin is any good. I find the word-processor-provided correction for “vastumforming” to be amusing: the program offered up “anti-farming” as a correctly spelled alternative, which, I suppose, is the most succinct definition I’ve seen for what we’ve been doing to our terra firma. In essence, we’ve been borrowing from the earth on a line of credit—take now, pay later, 0% APR for…oh, who needs to put a date on it? We’re fine.

Treating the Earth as a bank and its resources as overdraft cash, we’ve evaded the natural consequences of our actions. Evaded, or, perhaps, like the Leap Year-ed calendar, we participate in what Amitav Ghosh says we may later call our “Great Derangement”[1]: We believe we’ve been in charge, that we control, and what we can’t control, we ignore, silence, or deride. But the moon wobbles on, constant in its inconstancy, and the creditor—Earth, the moon, natural consequence—has come calling for our debt to be paid in full. Let the chips, and the rising tides, fall where they may.

****

I wandered through the French Quarter in New Orleans a few weeks ago, popping in and out of what shops remained open (the pandemic is just one of many storms to ravage the Mississippi Delta in recent memory). The lure of used bookstores gets me, just like astronomical clickbait, every time, so I stepped inside the musty gloam of Beckham’s Bookshop on Decatur Street. Stripes of flaking paint and mud stains have dyed the brick walls on the main floor—evidence of the river’s hand reaching beyond its banks during Katrina. I bought one book: William Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches, written while he lived in the Quarter—a few blocks from where I stood—during the 1920s. It’s full of character sketches and short stories, riverboat captains and Magdalenes, artists and fishermen who, it seems, walked past Faulkner as he sat rocking in the Quarter with a pipe in one hand and his pen in the other.

“The Tourist” is one such sketch, though it isn’t written about a person, but about the city itself: New Orleans, built on the silty shifting shores of the serpentine Mississippi (Faulkner may hate me for the alliteration, but the “s” sound seeps from the ground in NOLA; streetcars hiss and beads slither down silk stockings). New Orleans, to Faulkner, is a “courtesan, not old and yet no longer young, who shuns the sunlight that the illusion of her former glory be preserved.”[2] The city lives in an “atmosphere of a bygone and more gracious age.”[3] I thought this as I left the city, driving toward the Mississippi state line: The city was built, much like Venice and the villages in the Ganga basin and the towns of the Lower Antilles, on unexpectedly borrowed time.

We drove through a rainstorm to get to Memphis, Tennessee. While we were safe, at least 22 people died in a flash flood hundreds of miles from the Gulf; Hurricane Ida blew through Beckham’s Bookshop and the Quarter a week later. The levees—human engineering marvels to combat and evade natural consequences—held, but the iconic jazz club I walked past with a beignet in hand only a short week before was reduced to rubble. Scientists say Ida is a preview of what is to come. We may no longer have the luxury to “shun the sunlight that the illusion of [our] former glory be preserved.”

The day of reckoning may have come—at the least, it looms larger and closer still, like a distorted-by-pollution moon. When the moon’s wobble goes the other way, hitching one tide of the day higher than the other, our rising sea levels will make the wobble show its teeth, and parts of Martha’s Vineyard may disappear into the sea. One thing is for certain: We have left behind a “bygone and more gracious age.”

*****

The liberal arts are wobbling, too. A crisis of both natural consequence and our own making looms. In striking parallelism, we alongside the environment face rising populations (of PhD-toting applicants) and declining resources (available money, tenure-track positions, student enrollments). A skeptical public seems at once unaware of the problem, aware enough for the crisis to be elegiac fodder with comedic effect (I’m looking at you, Netflix’s The Chair), or, for those closer to the humanities, the problem may cause despair that they, as an individual, can ever fix it, so they might as well study something “marketable” instead. We face limitations in the classroom and our climate, in education and the environment. Tides are rising, and changing, and shifting, beneath our feet.

In ecocriticism and at UN Climate Summits, we cannot articulate or imagine convincingly how humans are of use in crises that loom larger than the moon above. In the humanities, we cannot articulate or imagine convincingly how humanists, broadly speaking, are of use in crises that loom outside—and inside—the university walls. We appear in both spheres limited by a potent mix of convention and capitalism.

But, as Marilynne Robinson writes of limitation, “[It can] be understood as leverage, a highly efficient multiplier of possibility that creates and gives access to our largest capacities.”[4] A blank page is both the most thrilling and daunting space to a writer; at once it is bound by finite margins and unbound by language’s almost infinite possibilities. We know the blank page, and the filled one, the ancient page and the new, better than most: Perhaps we are best suited to turn limitation into leverage, and weather the wobble in orbits both literal and metaphorical.

As the world seeks for either profitable sustainability or a restructured value-system that privileges other metrics of happiness over money, it may be time for the humanities to press forward toward the same. We can ask—and many are doing so, to great effect—new questions of the humanities’ profitability: What, for instance, could a poet’s use of twenty-four letters constrained by convention and code toward innovative solutions of meter, rhythm, and rhyme show us about ways to rethink carbon capture or the ethics of agribusiness? We may also look toward a sustainable scholarship that leaves our fields—a fertile word for the growing we must do—better than we found them and generating energy for projects, and generations of scholars, to come.

I’m a sucker for literary clickbait: the lines that, clinging like crusts to the beginnings and ends of paragraphs, crunch when you read them. They hit differently on my tongue when I speak them aloud. When I consider upon the humanities’ potential, for its own survival through our world’s, I am filled with hope and can taste the pink tinge of Faulkner’s words: “At the end of the street the sky was rumorous with dawn, a new day”[5]—for the humanities, and for us.

This post was written by Abby Thatcher, Humanities Center Intern.

 

[1] P. 11 in Ghosh, Amitav. “Part I: Stories.” The Great Derangement, U of Chicago Press, 2016, pp. 1-85.

[2] P. 13 in Faulkner, William. “The Tourist.” New Orleans Sketches, U of Mississippi P, 2009, pp. 13-14.

[3] Ibid., p. 14.

[4] P. 259 in Robinson, Marilynne. “Limitations.” The Givenness of Things, Picador, 2015, pp. 258-272.

[5] P. 33 in Faulkner, William. “Home.” New Orleans Sketches, U of Mississippi P, 2009, pp. 28-33.

 

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