I can’t remember when I first noticed the moon. As Earth’s closest companion, it certainly has had a strong influence on history, science, romance, seafaring, agriculture and dozens of other areas of life, both past and present.
While I remember the moon being beautifully present during many events in my life, it’s easy to take it for granted and not pursue the topic a bit to get further answers about some questions we might have. The quest for knowledge is certainly worthwhile. Read on and you’ll see what I mean!
For us gardeners, there are definite ties to phases of the moon and when planting, as well as harvesting, is done. Pick up any farmer’s almanac, and you’ll find a chart related to when to plant certain crops according to what phase the moon is in (more on moon phases in a bit). While there is a diversity of opinion on the subject, the basic idea is that the moon does exert a significant amount of gravitational pull on the earth. This is indeed scientific fact and is readily seen in the ocean tides. When a new moon occurs, gravitational pull is the strongest. As the tide rises, water beneath the surface of the soil is drawn upward as well. This makes moisture more readily available to seeds just planted. Because the moon grows increasingly brighter as it progresses to full moon stage, moonlight also helps leaf growth. While varying opinions exist on this, a great website to get more information is www.gardeningbythemoon.com/phases.html.
The moon exerts a tremendous influence on the earth — literally. Not bad for an object that is 225,622 miles away at the closest point in its orbit (perigee) and 252,088 at its furthest point (apogee). Average those two together, and our night sky neighbor is about 238,855 miles away. To make that number more comprehensible, the distance around the earth at the equator is right at 24,901 miles. So, it would require more than nine trips around the equator to equal the distance from earth to the moon. It takes about three days to reach the moon by spacecraft.
We are all aware that the portions of the moon we see, as illuminated in the night sky, constantly change. There is a specific pattern, timing and terminology for all of this. The variable, visible shapes of the moon we see from the earth are due to its four phases — new moon, first quarter, full, and third quarter moon. This is best explained using a diagram — visit www.moonconnection.com/moon_phases.phtml for an excellent chart showing the relation of the sun, earth and moon and what we can see illuminated during the moon’s cycle. When the amount of lit area is increasing, leading up to a full moon, the moon is said to be “waxing”. After a full moon, when the light is decreasing and heading back towards a new moon, the moon is “waning.”
I find it interesting that when the moon is “new,” it is dark to us, simply because it is directly between earth and the sun. So, the part of the moon that is illuminated is facing the sun, not us. At the same time, because of the direct alignment of the sun, moon and earth, the combined gravitational pull is at its greatest, creating the highest ocean tides as the water bulges towards the moon! We return the favor with Earth’s gravity creating a detectable bulge — a 60-foot land tide — on the Moon.
That’s not all. The gravitational pull of the moon also stabilizes the earth on its rotational axis. Our earth would wobble without the moon as a close companion. This symbiotic relationship has another remarkable effect; rotational speed is greatly diminished. It takes about the same amount of time for the moon to rotate once as it does for the moon to complete one orbit around the earth (about 27.3 days). The result is that we see the same side of the moon all the time.
There are a couple of curious and commonly known “moon phrases” that warrant further explanation. Let’s start with “once in a blue moon.” What the heck is that? As it turns out, there are multiple meanings to this phrase, but I’ll share two that are most common.
First, there have been events in recorded history where the moon did appear blue. This was caused by significant events on earth such as large-scale forest fires, or massive volcanic eruptions. Obviously, these are not regular happenings, so the moon appearing blue would not be typical either. Hence, the common-sense use of the term meaning something that occurs only occasionally or rarely.
The second meaning of this phrase came into use during the last three decades or so. The time between two full moons (just over 27 days) doesn’t quite equal a whole month, so about every three years there are two full moons in the same calendar month. The last occurrence of this was July 2015. So there’s a “blue moon” about every 33 months. Although in this setting “blue moon” is an astronomical term, the common meaning still fits; something that doesn’t occur very often.
How about harvest moon? When is it? This full moon occurs closest to the autumnal equinox (the first day of fall, about Sept. 21 or 22). This bright moon in the night sky, just as the days are becoming noticeably shorter (at least in the northern hemisphere!), allowed farmers in Europe and the northern Americas to continue harvesting crops later into the evening — thus, “harvest moon”.
There are actually “moon names” for each of the months, including “honey moon” for June, and “snow moon” for February.
What about other terms associated with the moon? The word “lunar” is well known. We know what a lunar eclipse is or that there is such a thing as a lunar landing (except for you “closet moon-landing conspirators” out there!), and there was a lunar buggy. The term “lunatic” is also directly related and comes from a belief commonly held at one time that sleeping with the moonlight shining on you or overexposure to moon light would cause mental illness. Some of this belief lead to the use of window coverings and the creation of deep eaves on roofs to diminish moonlight from coming into the house at night! You’ll be relieved to know that any scientific connection to the moon and mental instability has never been established. And you might find it interesting to know that Theodore Roosevelt apparently coined the term “lunatic fringe” to describe those that were a part of any cause or movement that took their beliefs or engagement to an extreme.
This article wouldn’t be complete without a mention of moonshine. While it has nothing to do with the moon (other than many times it was created in the moonlight) distilling this high alcohol content drink has been going on for decades. It’s generally distilled from corn, but any grain that will ferment when mixed with water, cooked, then more water and sugar added, can be used. Usually distilled in small batches, the drink itself is not illegal- it’s actually legal if it’s declared and taxes are paid on it. Today there are legal distilleries that produce “moonshine” and variations of it. Contrary to the thinking of those back in the day, drinking moonshine will not make you go blind or “rot your gut” any more than any other alcoholic beverage. That idea sprang from the era when production shortcuts were sometimes taken or illicit processes might have been used to increase production — including adding toxic substances, such as lye, to speed fermentation. Yeow! Other causes were that some moonshiners used old car radiators as part of their distilling gear. The problem with using radiators that lead solder is used in their production and the lead leached into the liquor, eventually leading to lead poisoning. There’s a good reason for our modern day food and liquor laws!
So, the next time you notice that moon, give it a second thought, and a nod of appreciation. Not only is it absolutely necessary to sustain life as we know it, but it’s beautiful as well — and an absolute dependable companion.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his web channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.