Friday, July 21, 2017  

The Moon by Any Other Name


February’s moon is cold and white. A chilling moon that shines into my bedroom window reminding me that winter still has its grip upon the land. The silhouette of bare tree branches stands out in stark relief as winds off the Bay whistle in the eaves. The beauty of the full moon inspires the human imagination even now that its deepest secrets have been probed. In earlier times with nothing but the stars, fires, and candles to illuminate the night, the full moon must have been overwhelming.

Human knowledge about the movements and phases of the moon is far older than most people might imagine. Archeologists have uncovered ample evidence in the form of cave drawings and engraved bone that early man tracked the movement of the moon through the seasons, and the changes that took place in the moon’s appearance over the twenty-nine days from new moon to full to new moon again.

These lunar calendars, as crudely rendered as they are, demonstrate Paleolithic man’s knowledge of the lunar cycles more than ten thousand years before the last Ice Age ended. Observational astronomy became the first real science of humankind and with it the way the tides, seasons, and movements of heavenly bodies had a pattern that did not happen by chance, but could be predicted and prognosticated upon.

It was in North America centuries later that the eastern Algonquin Native Americans, a loose confederation of tribes extending from the southern Chesapeake Bay north to New York and west as far as Lake Superior who gave each full moon a name to help track the seasons.

Depending on which tribe, there were four or five seasons. A year was defined as twelve moons by some; thirteen moons by others. These lunar calendars were adjusted every few years by adding an extra full moon to keep their calendars in sync with the seasons.

The name used most commonly depended on where the tribes resided and was often a description related to a particular activity or seasonal event. Colonial Americans adopted many of these full moon names and applied them to their own calendars. Some are still readily recognized today like the Harvest Moon. The wisdom of the ancients who lived here long before the early European settlers arrived shows a remarkable grasp of the natural world in which they lived.

January: Wolf Moon

Native Americans were just one of many cultures who referred to January’s full moon as the Wolf Moon. Wolves hunt in the early dawn hours and at dusk. January’s early nightfall and long hours of darkness dictated an early hunt and it wasn’t uncommon to hear wolves howling on cold January nights, a rallying cry to gather the pack.

Worldwide, since wolves once inhabited almost every continent, ancient myths abound surrounding these legendary nocturnal hunters that made January particularly sinister. As winter’s clear night air allowed sounds to carry for miles, villagers huddled close by their fires and listened to their nightly calls.

English immigrants also referred to January’s full moon as Old Moon, the last full moon of the old year that culminated in Yule, a pagan celebration that began in December and ended in early January that was later incorporated into the Christian celebration of Christmas.

February: Snow Moon

Northern Algonquin tribes called February’s full moon the Snow Moon. When deep snows lay in drifts, game was scarce and people stayed close by their fires. Further south it was called the Hunger Moon as victuals put by in autumn dwindled. As February advanced, the snows melted south to north and bare spots of ground would emerge, so the second full moon of the year was also referred to as Bare Spots on the Ground in anticipation of the first tentative green shoots emerging from the earth.

March: Worm Moon

As snows melted and frost gave way to softened earth, earthworms emerged from the warming soil, leaving their trails behind in the morning frost, giving March’s full moon its name Worm Moon. Flocks of migrating songbirds descended, flipping leaves aside in hopes of uncovering these juicy morsels and gobbling up winter berries.

In areas where sugar maples were tapped for their rich, sugary sap, March’s full moon was referred to as the Sap Moon or Moon When the Trees Pop. European settlers often referred to this moon as the Lenten Moon and considered this the last full moon of winter.

April: Pink Moon

In April think pink, as in Pink Moon, referring to a species of early blooming ground phlox, a wildflower that would carpet native meadows in early spring. Among coastal tribes, April often signaled the start of the shad run as fish returned to tidal rivers to spawn upstream, so this month’s full moon was also called the Full Fish Moon. Shad travel in large schools and their return meant an ample supply of protein and full bellies.

April’s moon was also called Egg Moon as nesting birds of all sizes lay their eggs and tribal gatherers eagerly searched for them in woods and tidal swamps.

May: Flower Moon

In many cultures May is flower month. Wild flowers bloomed in woods and meadows and early Colonial gardens flourished with herb blossoms and flowering fruit trees.

This was the moon under which corn was planted and festivals held to bless the harvest to follow, so May’s full moon was also referred to as the Corn Planting Moon. Corn was often planted by the light of the full moon in hopes its rays would bless the seeds.

June: Strawberry Moon

In June the wild strawberries grew in abundance and because of its short growing season, strawberries were eagerly anticipated. This fruit provided one of the few sugars Native Americans enjoyed, along with honey and other berries that would ripen later in summer. With strawberries available almost year round in grocery stores today, it may be hard to imagine a life where these luscious fruits were only available a few weeks a year.

July: Buck Moon

By early summer buck deer have begun to sprout their yearly antlers, encased in velvety fur, in anticipation of the fall rut. Native Americans often referred to this full moon as the Buck Moon, but it was also the season of frequent thunderstorms so this full moon was also referred to as the Thunder Moon. Wild grasses and hay grew in abundance so early settlers also referred to July’s full moon as the Hay Moon.

August: Sturgeon Moon

Along the tidal rivers and other major bodies of water, spawning sturgeon would return to their ancestral waters in late summer and could be caught in great numbers to be eaten fresh, smoked, or packed in salt for the winter. At one time sturgeon was second only to lobsters in profitability and was so over-fished they are now considered endangered. Native Americans relied on the sturgeon run as a valuable protein source and in its honor named the full moon Sturgeon Moon.

September: Harvest Moon

This was the month of plenty. Fields of grain and vegetables were ready for harvest and food laid by for winter. Some tribes referred to this full moon as the Corn Moon since this was often their principle crop. European settlers often worked late into the night under the full moon to maximize their harvest in case of early frost.

October: Hunter’s Moon

As Orion the Hunter began his climb across the sky, it was time to store meat for the winter. Deer and birds had fattened all summer, fields were reaped and attracted a variety of animals gleaning the fallen grains, easy prey for hunters. A successful hunt was a time for celebration and feasting.

As numerous camp fires sent smoke rising into the air, at times the moon appeared reddish on the horizon as it rose, thereby earning the name Blood/Sanguine Moon.

November: Beaver Moon

This was the month to set traps and secure warm pelts before waterways froze. Beaver and otter pelts were highly prized and traded among the various tribes. This month often brought the first frost or freeze and so was also called the Frosty Moon.

December: Cold Moon

Winter has arrived along with the shortest days of the year. The full moon rises early and stays late, earning the name Long Nights Moon as well. For early settlers it was the full moon just before the yule that would usher in the end of the old year in January. The moon had come full cycle.

No discussion of the moon would be complete without acknowledging the colloquial “Blue Moon.” Each year the moon completes its cycle approximately 11 days before 
Earth finishes its own orbit around the sun. This disparity of days adds up and so every two and a half to three years we will have four full moons in a season or two within a 
calendar month. This uncommon event is referred to as a Blue Moon.

As February’s full moon rises this year its beauty will pour moonbeams across my bedroom floor. Yet even now its fullness is fleeting. The waning gibbous moon will show its face tomorrow night only to become a waning crescent as we turn our calendars to a new month. Before long, mid-March will signal its return. Can spring be far behind?