Harvest Moon

harvest_moonThe Harvest Moon is the full Moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox. In most years that occurs in September, but in some years – like this year – it occurs in October.

It is said that at the peak of harvest, farmers can work late into the night by the light of this full moon. That’s not all legend and tradition. Usually the full Moon rises an average of 50 minutes later each night, but for the few nights around the Harvest Moon, the Moon seems to rise at nearly the same time each night – just 25 to 30 minutes later across the U.S., and only 10 to 20 minutes later for much of Canada and Europe.

Since many of our American moon traditions come from the Native Americans, I usually look to their traditions when writing about full moons on this blog each month. Their diet staples were corn, pumpkins, squash, beans, and wild rice and all of them would typically be ready by this full moon (though, obviously, this varied by tribe and location).

The Harvest Moon was the only full moon given the same name by both the English and by the Native Americans of eastern and northern North America.

The Harvest moon is often confused with the Hunter’s Moon which is a more modern nickname for the moon that is the first full moon after the Harvest Moon. (That will be November 2 this year.)

I asked a few friends what they thought the “harvest moon” meant. The most common answer was that it was “that orange moon in fall.”  Well, the Harvest Moon seems to be bigger or brighter or more colorful than other moons. These effects have to do with the seasonal tilt of the earth.

The warm color of the moon shortly after it rises is an optical illusion, based on the fact that when the moon is low in the sky, you are looking at it through a greater amount of atmospheric particles (including pollution) than when the moon is overhead. The atmosphere scatters the bluish component of  but allows the reddish component of the light to travel a straighter path to your eyes. All celestial bodies look reddish when they are low in the sky.

(Lots of illusions out there – that blue moonlight is really reflected white light from the sun.)

And why does it look bigger? The human eye perceives a low-hanging moon to be larger than one that’s high in the sky. This is known as a Moon Illusion and it can be seen with any full moon. (It is also true of constellations viewed low in the sky.)

Did you know that the full moons of September, October and November as seen from the northern hemisphere correspond to the full moons of March, April and May as seen from the southern hemisphere?

Moon Festival

The Mid-Autumn Festival  is a popular harvest festival celebrated by Chinese people and dates back over 3,000 years to moon worship in China. It is also referred to as also known as the Moon Festival, or in Chinese, Zhongqiu Jie (traditional Chinese: 中秋節), or the Lantern or Mooncake Festival.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, which is usually around  late September or early October in the Gregorian calendar. For 2009, it is today, October 3.

It is one of the two most important holidays in the Chinese calendar, the other being the Chinese New Year. It is a legal holiday in several countries.

Farmers celebrate the end of the summer harvesting season on this date.


Traditionally, on this day, Chinese family members and friends will gather to admire the bright mid-autumn harvest moon, and eat moon cakes and pomeloes (Chinese grapefruit) outside under the moon. Carrying brightly lit lanterns, lighting lanterns on towers, and floating sky lanterns is also popular.

In ancient China, emperors followed the rite of offering sacrifices to the sun in spring and to the moon in autumn.  Later aristocrats and literary figures helped expand the ceremony to common people who enjoyed the full, bright moon on that day, worshipped it and expressed their thoughts and feelings under it.

It is a date that parallels the autumn and spring Equinoxes of the solar calendar, when the moon is supposedly at its fullest and roundest.


Another tradition is burning incense in reverence to deities including Chang’e, the Chinese goddess of the moon.

Unlike many lunar deities in other cultures who personify the moon, Chang’e only lives on the moon. The lunar crater “Chang’e 1” is named after her.

Chang’e is the subject of several legends in Chinese mythology, most of which incorporate several of the following elements: Houyi the Archer, a benevolent or malevolent emperor, an elixir of life, and of course, the moon.

Autumnal Equinox

It’s fall – or it’s spring – depending on where you are when you read this today.

The Autumnal Equinox 2009 will occur today, September 22, at  21:18 UTC (17:18 EDT or 14:18 PDT).

To scientists, an equinox is either of two points on the celestial sphere where the ecliptic and the celestial equator intersect.

To most of us, it’s one of two times a year when the Sun crosses the equator, and the day and night are of approximately equal length. When the Sun passes this point, on about 23 September each year, nights begin to grow longer than days, and continue to do so until the Winter Solstice in December

During today’s autumnal equinox, the Sun appears to cross the celestial equator, from north to south. We mark this time as the beginning of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. On the other side of the globe, yesterday marked the start of spring with their vernal equinox.

During the next 3 months, the sun will continue to shift southward, bringing cooler weather to the Northern Hemisphere, and warmer weather to the Southern Hemisphere.

Is a solstice just another word for an equinox? No. The Summer and Winter Solstices mark when the Sun is farthest north or south and the length of time between Sunrise and Sunset is the shortest of the year while the equinoxes mark the equal points in between.

For more information more about why we have changing seasons, go to crh.noaa.gov/fsd/astro/season.php.

Nature’s Calendar

spring summer

I have been following signs in my local area for years looking to nature to tell me that it was time to plant in my garden. It is something you have to do locally, so my dates probably apply to New Jersey and this area in some cases and are only specific to my own square mile. In fact, sometimes they seem to apply only to my own backyard.

For example, the daffodils I have planted in the garden bloomed five days later than several houses around the block – probably due to the amount of sun they receive.

I have kept a kind of nature calendar for a bunch of years. March 25 – piping plovers return to NJ (prune evergreens; turn compost; sow peas and spinach) April 26 – bluefish run usually begins. April 29 – first piping plover nests on Jersey beaches. You get the idea.

For centuries farmers, naturalists, and scientists have kept records of the patterns of plants and animals and used the information to predict the best time for planting and harvesting crops and when to start expecting problems with insect pests.

There are other “citizen scientists” out there. You can join thousands of others in gathering environmental and climate change information from across the country in a program called Project BudBurst.

It asks you to make careful observations of the phenophases in your area such as first leafing, first flower, and first fruit ripening of a diversity of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses. What is really important is to observe the first day of the appropriate phenophase (like the first flower).

Phenology (which I had never heard of, even though I was doing it) is the study of the timing of life cycle events like leafing, budding, and blooming in plants.

What makes it more important of late is that the timing of phenological events of many species has changed recently as a result of changing temperatures and rainfall patterns. The average global temperature increased by 0.6°C ( 1.0°F) during the 20th century. The temperature is predicted to rise with another 1.8 to 4.0°C ( 3.2 to 7.2°F) in the 21st century. That probably seems like pretty small variations, but on the global scale, it can have dramatic effects on the environment.

It’s the kind of data that leads most scientists to believe that this will cause the sea level to rise by 10 to 89 cm (4 to 35 inches) during this century.

Climate change has the largest effect on plants because, unlike many animals, they cannot move easily from one area to another.

The results might be that the growing season could start earlier or continue over a longer period of time. In New Jersey, the “official”  last frost date ranges from April 15 to May 15, but I have been keeping track myself and a May frost has been the very rare exception for my little microclimate in the past 20 years.

So, watching for the phases of the plant life cycle (phenophases) causes you to be very mindful of things like temperature, rainfall, and day length. Monitoring changes in events such as first bud, budburst, and flowering, can help scientists detect climate change.

If you volunteer to take part in Project BudBurst, you track climate change by recording the timing of flowers and foliage. The project started as a pilot program in 2007 operated by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), the Chicago Botanic Garden, and the University of Montana. They are collecting thousands of observations from students, gardeners, and others to give researchers a more detailed picture of our warming climate. It’s crowdsourcing data collection.

Looking at data from 2007 and 2008 gives a baseline for the timing of key plant events. 4,861 observations were reported online in 2008 from participants in every state except Hawaii.

There’s lots of information on the project site and at the links below, but here are some basics:

  • Each participant in Project BudBurst selects one or more plants to observe. (The project website suggests more than 75 widely distributed trees and flowers, with information on each and you can add your own choices.)
  • You start by checking your plants at least a week prior to the average date of budburst–the point when the buds have opened and leaves are visible.
  • After budburst, you continue to observe the tree or flower for later events, such as seed dispersal.
  • When you submit records online, you can view maps of these phenophases across the United States.

One category is “Deciduous Trees and Shrubs” (as opposed to evergreens). The Project lists 28 deciduous trees and shrubs that are easy to identify and widespread across the continental United States. You can get a printable identification guide and phenophase field guide online with pictures, identifying characteristics, and plant-specific phenophase descriptions. One that I did this spring is the Forsythia (Forsythia xintermedia).

white clover
white clover

When white clover (Trifolium repens) pops up in my lawn, maybe I won’t spray it, but observe it. Did you know that it is in the plant family of the pea or legume (Fabaceae)?  Trifolium repens, like other members of the pea family, fix nitrogen. This makes clover an important agricultural and rangeland plant—by planting it with grasses it is possible to increase the grass yield. Clover leaves and flowers are also good forage for wildlife, such as moose, grizzly bear, white-tailed deer, and blue grouse. Clover is used widely by bees to produce honey.

I like both the scientific side of this and being mindful of the natural world around you.

I recommend you take up this in your own little part of the world. You can certainly do it for yourself, but sharing the information with the Project really adds another level of awareness.


The Long Count

A small section of Maya glyphs – the left column shows the Long Count date of or June 23, 156 CE

I wrote about December 21, 2012, which is when the Maya calculated would be the end of their “Long Count” calendar. Not the end of the world, as some people say, but the end of a 5,126-year era.

On the winter solstice in 2012, the sun will be aligned with the center of the Milky Way for the first time in about 26,000 years.

There’s a theory that whatever energy typically hits Earth from the center of the Milky Way will be disrupted.

The Long Count is complicated to explain.  I enjoy math, but I’m not very good at it. (Yes, that is possible.) I admire the elegance of some math.  You can skip the next few math lines if you wish and get to what really interests me about this Maya calendar.

Their calendar math is a mixed base-20/base-18 representation of a number, representing the number of days since the start of the Mayan era.

The basic unit is the kin (day), which is the last component of the Long Count. Going from right to left the remaining components are:

1 uinal = 20 kin = 20 days

1 tun = 18 uinal = 360 days = approx. 1 year

1 katun = 20 tun = 7,200 days = approx. 20 years

1 baktun = 20 katun = 144,000 days = approx. 394 years

Though it’s not part of the Long Count, the Maya actually had names for much longer time spans than we are used to considering. There is a calabtun which is about 158,000 of our years. What interests me is thinking about what kind of culture feel a need (or desire) for a calendar with the alautun, which is 23,040,000,000 days or about 63 million years. What were they calculating and planning?

If you were counting the days with the Long Count, day one should be, but since baktun are numbered from 1 to 13, the first date would be written  Is that when the Maya set the day of the creation of the world?

Folks who study this aren’t in agreement about what corresponds to in our calendar. We need to know when the Mayan world began, so we can figure out when the Long Count is over.

Maybe = 8 September 3114 BC in the Julian calendar or 13 August 3114 BC in the Gregorian calendar. Maybe the end of the long count will reset to on 23 December AD 2012. Or when the alignment occurs on 21 December 2012 at 11:11 p.m. Universal Time.

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Wolf Moon

wolf moon

Tonight is the night of the 2009 Wolf Moon.

Full Moon names started with Native Americans as tribes kept track of the seasons by giving distinctive names to each recurring full Moon. The names actually applied to the entire month in which each occurred.

There was some variation in the names based on tribes. European settlers followed that custom and created some of their own names. Since the lunar month is only 29 days long on the average, the full Moon dates shift from year to year.

The January full Moon name comes from the wolf packs that would howl outside the villages of Native Americans during the hungry, lean, snow-covered winter nights.

Depending on location, some tribes call January the Full Snow Moon, but most tribes applied that name to the next full moon.