On my dog walks, I’ve noticed just how busy our farming friends have been recently, gathering in the crops, baling up the straw, spreading the muck and ploughing the fields ready for the next cycle of planting. For the most part, the weather has been kind, allowing the crops to be gathered in the daytime without too much interference from rain. On occasional evenings though, I have seen vehicle lights glowing in the fields as they worked on well into the night.
The sophistication of agricultural machinery would be beyond all recognition to our forefathers, who would have had to rely on the light of the moon to illuminate the land as the nights drew in and daylight hours decreased.
And that is the reason that the big, bright moon we have at this time of year is nicknamed the ‘Harvest Moon’, as my dad explains in his column from 6th October 1979. In the days before accurate weather forecasting, if the crops were ripe at the same time as a spell of good weather, farmers would pull out all the stops to get them in before the weather broke, working well into the nights, and relying on the light of Harvest Moon.
But the official name for the October full moon is the ‘Hunter’s Moon’, so called because it was the best month to hunt for game animals fattened after a bountiful summer. They would be easier to spot once the fields were stripped of their crops, and hunters benefitted from the brighter-than-normal moonlight when tracking their prey.
At the start of the moon’s 29.5-day monthly journey around our planet, it sits directly between the earth and the sun. We can’t see this ‘new’ moon because the side facing us is in complete darkness. If you were standing on the far side of the moon, though, you would be bathed in sunlight.
As this cosmic sphere moves anti-clockwise around the earth, we get to see more of it as the sun’s rays fall upon its surface. So you’ll see a ‘crescent’ moon, then a ‘half’, then ‘three-quarters’ and so on, until half way through its journey, we reach a ‘full’ moon.
But these laymen’s terms do not reflect what is actually happening. A ‘full’ moon is really only half illuminated, as the side facing away from the sun stays in complete darkness. This might seem obvious, but I don’t think I’ve ever really sat down and thought about the mechanics of the moon’s phases, and its position in relation to the sun. And I can tell you, it has made my brain hurt trying to explain it in writing!
The moon’s exposure to the sun increases every day until it reaches its journey’s half way point, and this is known as the ‘waxing’ period, after which it enters the ‘waning’ period. Then, with every day that passes, less of the surface facing us is exposed to the sun, and at the end of the lunar month, it arrives back where it started, at its darkest point, to begin the journey all over again.
The Native Americans relied on the moon to keep time, and it is from them that we have the rather lovely names for each month’s full moon. January’s is called the ‘Wolf Moon’ after the howling of hungry wolves, whose food is sparse during the winter. February is ‘Snow Moon’ reflecting the wintriest of months. March is named after the worm, as spotting these creatures means the ground is thawing and spring is coming. April is known as ‘Pink’ thanks to a species of early blooming wildflower, and May is ‘Flower’, when the tree blossoms are at their most magnificent. June is ‘Strawberry’ after the ripening fruit, and July is ‘Buck’, as the male deer’s antlers have regrown after shedding. August is the ‘Sturgeon Moon’, so named thanks to the abundance of the fish, and September’s is the ‘Full Corn Moon’ reflecting the ripening harvest. This one and, as mentioned, October’s ‘Hunter’s Moon’, can both be called the ‘Harvest Moon’, depending on which of them falls the closest to the autumn equinox, which this year fell on 23rd September.
November is the ‘Beaver Moon’ after the increase in activity of the dam-building creature, and December is simply the ‘Cold Moon’, for obvious reasons.
After all that, I think I’ll head off for a Harvest Moon (that’s an apple and cinnamon cocktail, if you’re wondering!).
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