That Old New Moon

When I first learned to fly airplanes I lived along the Canadian border in northern Minnesota. One night in 1983 I got my first taste of night-time flying on a full moon night, and after that I would mark on my calendar the two or three nights either side of the winter full moons. If on one of those nights the weather happened to be clear and not desperately cold, I would go over to the little airport where I worked and take one of the little planes up for a flight over the Quetico-Superior canoe country.

A full winter moon shining over a snow-covered landscape mottled with broad lakes bathes a landscape in light so bright that a person can stand and read a newspaper by moonlight, at least down to the second-smallest font. I felt confident that with that sort of light, even I as a fledgling pilot could probably set the plane down on a snowy lake if the urgent need arose. Awash in confidence, whether justified or not, I would taxi out and take off.  Once airborne I would head north past the lights of Ely and Winton and cross over the border at Basswood Lake, into Canadian airspace.

As far as I knew, this international aerial incursion was legal back then as long as I did not land and as long as I stayed more than 2,000 feet above the wilderness preserve. Not sure I would recommend trying it nowadays – there might be a fighter-interceptor off your wingtip in short order, although it would be somewhat comical to see him trying to slow that jet down to a hundred miles an hour so as to flash you the red lights.

On some of those nights I would fly north until I was over the very heart of the Quetico, then bank in a broad arc above the shining white swaths of Agnes Lake, Kawnipi, and Kahshahpiwi, and in the distance I could see the twinkling lights of Atikokan, Ontario. With a full moon over it all, the sensation of pure flight at some moments of those flights utterly transcended the putt-putt of the little motor and the spinning propeller, the gauges and the radio and the clumsy metal bird. When that happened it was about as much fun as a young fellow could have with his clothes on.

It is a little-known fact that the full moon’s path through the winter sky is almost precisely the same path that the sun will follow from dawn to dusk in mid-summer. And vice versa. In high summer here in the far north I seem to scarcely notice the moon, what with the sky so light and the days so long and the sun so high on its arc. But the moon is there if I look for it, pale and low, even in June and July, as a reminder to anyone paying attention, showing how the winter sun will rise in the southeast and slink along the southern horizon for a few hours until it sets again in the southwest.

These patterns of seasonal symmetry baffle me, as does almost every aspect of astronomy, but on a cold winter night I look up at the full moon so impossibly high in the sky, and it is just a gift of wonderful brightness. The difference between a cloudy, dark, snowless, new-moon night in autumn and a clear, bright, snowy, full moon night in January, is the difference between night and almost-day. It is inspiring to remember that the mid-winter moonrise, set so impossibly far north of due east, and the moon’s high bright trajectory overhead through the fifteen-hour night, is exactly the same path the sun will be on in six months, at the height of summer. It is inspiring, and in late January I need to take my inspiration wherever I can find it.

When I began to compose this post on January 25th, the moon was new. “New moon,” as in “no moon,” – that is, the one completely moonless night of the four-week cycle. By the time this writing is finished tonight the sliver of waxing crescent moon will just be sinking off to the west. The moon is forever chasing the sun and always losing the race, growing fatter and falling behind about 50 minutes every night, until the next full moon night, this one coming on the ninth of February.

Over the long (to us) and brief (to the moon) arc of humanity’s conscious journey, the vast majority of our collective nights have been very dimly lit – by lanterns and lamps, candles and torches, firelight, and for long eons before any of those, by moonlight and starlight. The moon is thus our most natural calendar. The sun can be the day’s clock, rising and setting and giving us a “local noon” wherever we are, while the moon is the month’s calendar hung on the wall of the sky, there whenever the clouds are not too thick. Two centuries ago, or less, before streetlights and indoor plumbing, almost anyone you met would have known, pretty much as soon as you asked, what phase the moon was in.

When I took a class in the Ojibwe Anishinabe language back in 1977, our teacher was an old woman from the Bad River Reservation on Lake Superior. One day she ticked off by memory a list of a year’s moons, and I am now inspired to go dig that list out again. I’m sure it’s in a file folder around here somewhere. There was the Moon When Trees Crack In the Cold (that was around now), the Maple Sugar Moon in early spring, the Moon of Crust on the Snow in late winter, and Manomin Gisiss, the Wild Rice Moon, in late summer when the rice got ripe. Every moon had a distinct name or two, and hearing them you would know, if you lived there, what time of year that moon would come.

Uber-urban moderns could still do the same, of course, and it might open a few people’s minds. Say you needed to call your next big meeting with your co-workers, and you announced that it was set for “two hours after sunrise on the first day after the full Moon of the Fiscal Year End.” I think most people who wanted to be there would probably figure it out and show up on time, give or take a few minutes. Of course when they heard your announcement they would not first look up at the big night sky, but straight down at their little screens, thumbs busy, brows furrowed, as urban people do whenever… well, whenever, full stop. But maybe on some of the nights leading up to the confab some of them would actually look up at the sky, and notice the shape and aspect of the moon. For some people it might be the first time in years. It would at least tweak their interest. Maybe.

So around we go again. As February looms, here in the very heart of winter, Buzz and Neil’s shape-shifting chunk of rock will be waxing from new to crescent to quarter (which looks like half) to gibbous, to full, and then, night by night, it will wane back through its repertoire to new and dark and young again, on the twenty-third of the month.

Musing about moon names and old Delores Bainbridge from Bad River, rest her soul, I think if I was pressed to give a name to this second moon of deep winter I would call it the Moon of Cold Hard Facts. Or maybe The Moon of Consequences. Such as:

  • If you didn’t put up all your firewood back in the fall, guess what – you get to do it now, in the cold, wearing snowshoes and cursing the balky cold chainsaw.
  • It is very hard to tiptoe on snowshoes. And even if you succeed the moose still hears you.
  • Snow is a wonderful insulator unless it has just cascaded right down your bare neck from a heavily laden spruce branch overhead, bumped while you were concentrating on trying to tiptoe on your snowshoes.
  • Boot liners and water holes in the ice that are ignored one day, by not drying the liners or not chopping the ice hole open wide enough, will come back around to collect their due the following day. You get to have cold feet while you chop twice as much ice today as you should have chopped yesterday.

And so on. One unassailable and welcome fact is that the bright winter moon is getting bigger each night, riding its high arc through the sky. And that is something to appreciate.

“The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, well, I have really good days.”  

Ray Wylie Hubbard, Mother Blues

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