Thursday, October 16, 2008

Beautiful, unanswerable questions

Come a little bit closer
Hear what I have to say
Just like children sleeping
We could dream this night away.

But there’s a full moon rising
Let’s go dancing in the light
We know where the music’s playing
Let's go out and feel the night.

-Neil Young, Harvest Moon

Lunar Eclipse over Oscar, NC - 2/20/2008

Shine on, Harvest Moon, the full moon of song, the full moon I’ve always known by name.

The next one after Harvest Moon, the Hunter’s Moon is the full moon that shone over these blessed hills this week.

Every full moon has a name. In fact, I’m learning that every full moon has many names. At Beyond the Fields We Know the Hunter’s Moon is identified by dozens of names, such as Acorns Falling Moon, Big Chestnut Moon, Chrysanthemum Moon, Moon When Geese Leave, Moon That Turns the Leaves White, Striped Gopher Looks Back Moon, Travel in Canoes Moon, and Winter Coming Moon.

The list suggests so much. I think of the remote places and the distant times that people looked up through the burnished leaves of autumn, observed the full moon, and called it by name. I’ll confess that on any given day, I can find plenty of reasons to be disenchanted with humanity. But when I consider some long-ago father teaching his children about the Moon When Geese Leave, I’m enchanted.

Perhaps the Creator gave us poetry to compensate in small measure for the ways in which we humans are something less than the animals and plants that surround us. Whether or not that’s the case, there’s poetry in the names of the full moons.

The Farmer’s Almanac lists the full moons of the year by the names are generally known in America. After the Harvest Moon and the Hunter’s Moon come the Beaver Moon, the Long Nights Moon, the Wolf Moon, the Snow Moon, the Crow Moon, the Pink Moon, the Flower Moon, the Strawberry Moon, the Buck Moon and the Sturgeon Moon. For the most part, these names are derived from the Algonquin culture of the Northeast

Another list appeared in a Shepherd’s Calendar published in the 16th century. These names hark back to earlier times on the British Isles with hints of Greek and Roman mythology. What we call the Harvest Moon was known as the Barley Moon, followed by the Blood Moon, the Snow Moon, the Oak Moon, the Wolf Moon, the Storm Moon, the Chaste Moon, the Seed Moon, the Hare Moon, the Dyad Moon, the Mead Moon and the Wort Moon.

In one of those funny ways that modern technology opens a door to ancient tradition, a web search of a phrase like “full moon names” yields a remarkable amount of information. I printed the results from one site alone – 23 pages of names that various Native American tribes used to refer to the full moons of the year. According to that source, the Eastern Cherokee names for the successive full moons are the Harvest Moon, the Hunting Moon, the Snow Moon, the Cold Moon, the Bone Moon, the Wind Moon, the Flower Moon, the Planting Moon, the Green Corn Moon, the Corn in Tassel Moon, the Ripe Corn Moon, the End of Fruit Moon and the Nut Moon.

The act of naming creates something that didn’t otherwise exist. Janika Kronberg writes about this in an essay on the Estonian poet Ene Mihkelson, "Naming the Things of the World":

The main aim of Mihkelson's poetry is to give names to things. Memory and naming are her dominating motifs. Mihkelson names things and phenomena, as only things possessing names are able to persist. As regards the past, naming denotes saving something essential from oblivion, and as regards the present, it is an invitation for something essential to come into being. Mihkelson firmly believes that all things come into being when they are born in language, she believes that the Word creates time.

When I read the lists of names for the full moons, I feel as though I’m reading the table of contents for a book that’s been lost, and I wonder what memories persist to explain such names as these:

Moon When the Wolves Run Together
Winter’s Younger Brother Moon
Moon When the Water is Black With Leaves
Shoulder to Shoulder Around the Fire Moon
Moon When the Little Flowers Die
Berries Ripe on the Mountains Moon
Crest of the Hill Moon
Moon of the Turtle
Wind Tossed Moon
Moon of Red Grass Appearing
Moon When the Spruce Tips Fall

I know it is possible, though not likely, that I could live more attuned to the phases of the moon, and become so familiar with the full moons of the year that I would give them names. For now, I’m glad that those who’ve gone before have known the moon that well.

Under the Harvest Moon
by Carl Sandburg

Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers.

Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.

1 comment:

Western North Carolina Writer's Underground said...

I couldn't resist.

"We get it almost every night
When that ol' moon gets-a big and bright
It's a supernatural delight
Everybody's dancin' in the moonlight

Everybody here is out of sight
They don't bark, and they don't bite
They keep things loose, they keep things light
Everybody was dancin' in the moonlight

Everybody's dancin' in the moonlight
Everybody's feelin' warm and right
It's such a fine and natural sight
Everybody's dancin' in the moonlight

We like our fun and we never fight
You can't dance and stay uptight
It's a supernatural delight
Everybody was dancin' in the moonlight"

King Harvest, "Dancing in the Moonlight", 1969