The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame has long been treasured friend, one that always delights and comforts me. My copy has the wonderful line drawings by Ernest Shepard. I won it in a book character contest one summer in my 11th year at our neighborhood library. I took top honors with my stunning and subtly nuanced interpretation of Mark Twain. As I recall I was up against quite a few Davie Crocketts and Daniel Boones, coonskin caps being all the rage that year.

I read the book every 5 years or so. The last time I read it I paid particular attention to Mr Grahame’s descriptions of the night sky. I do this with all the fiction I read now, kind of in the ‘fact-checker’ mode. (In the nautical fiction of Patrick O’Brian, especially: he has some exquisite passages about sailing at night under a vast cathedral of stars.)

In Chapter Seven of Wind In The Willows, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Rat and Mole assist their friend Otter in looking for Otter’s son, Portly, who had gone missing, but not to panic or worry, Portly was always straying off and getting lost… except this time was a bit more serious, he had been missing for several days in the Wild Wood. Rat and Mole decided to continue the daytime search through the coming night, concentrating along the river.

Though it was past ten o’clock at night, the sky still clung to and retained some lingering skirts of light from the departed day; and the sullen heats of the torrid afternoon broke up and rolled away at the dispersing touch of the cool fingers of the short midsummer night.

Knowing that the Wild Wood is based, approximately, on the the area surrounding village of Lerryn, in Cornwall. And that Midsummer is the generally the time around the solstice; and (from a later conversation in which Rat mentions the fact) that moonrise was near midnight that night…

I look through the ephemeris for 50° 23’ N and 4° 37’ W on 21 June of various years, searching for a moonrise at midnight. On 20 June, 1900 I found a last quarter moon rising at 11:56 PM. That would work. 20 June of 1903 shows a waning crescent, about 32% illuminated, rising about 1:09 AM. That fits too. There was no Summer Time (or Daylight Savings Time as we say here in the states) when Mr Grahame was writing this book — that didn’t come into effect for another 10 years of so. The book was published in 1908, so I figure this was about the right time frame.

Mr Grahame describes nautical twilight – a time when horizon features are still faintly visible, but the darkening sky will offer up a few bright stars if you know where to look; and some lightness west, perhaps some high whispy clouds lit by the sun, now below the horizon. When Grahame describes his lingering skirts of light perhaps he was referring to noctilucent clouds: a high altitude cloud that is luminous at twilight at higher latitudes, such as Cornwall, near 50° North. (I’ll post on NLCs soon – uncommonly beautiful.) Nautical twilight occurs, technically, when the center of the sun is 12° below the horizon. This is when navigators locked their legs about the lower shrouds, took sextant and chronometer in hand, and determined the altitude of a particular star above the horizon. In order to plot a ship’s position.

So the first general description of night holds true: the sun was about 10.5° below the horizon at 10 PM local time, at Midsummer, in the Wild Wood, by my calculations. The last vestige of twilight would be showing west. And about the rising moon, east, toward midnight:

The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew. At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings; and once more they began to see surfaces—meadows widespread, and quiet gardens, and the river itself from bank to bank, all softly disclosed, and washed clean of mystery and terror, all radiant again as by day, but with a difference that was tremendous.

I love that moonrise. I see it. It’s so true how the world is ‘softly disclosed’ by moonlight, even the light of a waning crescent moon. That is actually enough light to read by. I’ve done it.

The story continues with Rat and Mole working upstream slowly until sometime near morning twilight. He relates that

… the moon, serene and detached in a cloudless sky, did what she could, though so far off, to help them in their quest; till her hour came and she sank earthwards reluctantly, and left them, and mystery once more held field and river.

He doesn’t say the moon set but that it sank earthward reluctantly, and left them.

I believe Rat and Mole may have been on the south shore of the river, up against a tall stand of English Oak, because this type of moon would not set until well after daylight. But it could have disappeared behind the trees, certainly. (And reluctantly.)

The waning crescent moon, the moon that rises in the east at midnight, would not transit, or cross, the south meridian until the following morning, and would not set until early afternoon. Technically it is rising until it transits. Even at dawn the moon would not be sinking earthward. Except near Toad Hall. I’ll tell you though, in my experience as a walker in the woods at night, it’s all a trick of perspective. You walk down a path and the moon is well above the horizon. You work your way up a small rise, around a bend, and it’s back at the horizon, bigger, brighter, a different moon altogether. Clearly in the Wild Wood, the perspective is perfectly realized in service of a story well told. I’m sure that’s just the way it was that night.

Rat and Mole did eventually find Portly,by the way, with the help of Pan, the Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.