THE FABULOUS, FANTASTIC, FULL MOON
The moon is our closest celestial neighbor and travel companion, circling around us, as we circle the sun in a giant loop. It always presents one side to us, the other forever hidden—the dark side of the moon. As the earth moves around the sun, the part that is fully illuminated is the side we call daylight, the opposite side is in darkness—nighttime. It is the nighttime side of earth where the moon is best visible because the rays of the sun strike upon it and make it brilliantly visible to us. But the moon’s visibility changes as it progresses through its orbit, because the amount of illumination on it from the sun’s rays is affected by our position before it. The amount of shadow we cast on the moon, affects how much of it we see—from a tiny sliver, to a brilliant ball when it’s fully illuminated by the sun, with us out of the way.
The various ways we see the moon are called phases, and they are regular and predictable. This regularity did not escape early men, and people have used moon cycles to keep track of time as far back as recorded history, and most likely even before that. Roughly every 29.5 days, the moon is full, which means that there are twelve full moons every year. But every two years or so, a thirteenth full moon occurs within that calendar year—it is called a blue moon. And the term has come to mean something very rare.
Throughout history, many cultures and civilizations used the moon cycles to keep track of time, and many assumed that the moon had an effect on agriculture. That is why the names given to the full moon are related to nature, climatic, or agricultural event. In English there are currently at least twelve names for the each full moon within a year. January’s is “wolf moon” because wolves come out and howl amid the bitter cold of winter. February’s full moon is called the “snow moon,” again referring to the winter panorama in the northern hemisphere. The March full moon was named the “worm moon” by Native Americans, because all kinds of creatures emerge out of their winter hideouts in spring. April gives us the “pink moon,” named after the wildflower phlox, which blooms that month. June is “strawberry moon,” in honor of the berry. The full moon in July is “buck moon,” as male deer begin to regrow their horns. Thanks to the Algonquins, we call August’s full moon “sturgeon’s moon.” That is because these tribes gathered near major bodies of water to fish for sturgeon during that month; a major food source for the tribes. And September’s “harvest moon” is because before electricity, farmers depended on the light of the moon to harvest crops, late into the night. October is “hunter’s moon” as that is the preferred month for hunting. In November, Native Americans would set traps for beavers, so it followed that the full moon that month would be called “beaver moon.” And December’s full moon is the “cold moon,” just as the month itself begins winter. These are just some of the most common names for the different full moons; there are many other names.
But what about the moon in May? It is called “the flower moon,” and the connection is easy to understand—all you need to do is look at the bougainvillea climbing along the walls of our city! May is a month of a multitude of flowers, and what better complement to their beauty than a brilliant, natural spotlight in the night sky as a backdrop. This year the moon will be in its full glory on May 4, and I wish you all a clear, lovely night to enjoy the Flower Moon of 2023!