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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

The moon speaks different names to different people

David Colburn
Posted 8/17/22

Call me a spoil sport, a curmudgeon, a sour puss, a grump, call me whatever you’d like, but I really do get annoyed, and have for years, at the media’s seeming love affair with, of all …

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The moon speaks different names to different people


Call me a spoil sport, a curmudgeon, a sour puss, a grump, call me whatever you’d like, but I really do get annoyed, and have for years, at the media’s seeming love affair with, of all things, the “names” of the moon.
In case you weren’t paying attention, and it was hard not to, we just experienced the last supermoon of the year, the Sturgeon moon.
Let’s tackle that first term, supermoon, first. There literally wasn’t such a thing by name when I got my first (and only) telescope through the mail as a kid after ordering it from an ad in Boys’ Life magazine. The term hadn’t been coined yet there in the late 1960s. Astronomers talked about the moon’s orbit just like they did about the Earth’s orbit around the sun, being elliptical and not circular in nature, and therefore having one point, apogee, when the moon’s orbit is farthest from earth, and another point, perigee, where it was closest. Frankly, I didn’t really care if it was apogee or perigee. It was just, “Oh, gee, the moon is full, where’s my telescope?!!”
It wasn’t until 1979, three years after I finished high school and probably six or seven years that my little telescope had been collecting dust in the attic, that astrologer Richard Nolle coined the term supermoon. Astrologer, not astronomer. Nolle decided that year that any time a new moon or full moon happens when the moon is within 90 percent of the moon’s perigee, about as close as it gets to Earth, it should be called a supermoon. Personally, I’d have preferred maximoon as a play on the word “maximum,” but of course Nolle didn’t bother to ask me.
Eventually, the term supermoon caught on, but there was a slight problem when it came time to touting the next supermoon in the press. It was because of Nolle’s definition, which makes perfect sense when you think about it, included new moons. You know, the one’s you can’t see? You’re probably not going to attract many readers with a headline that declares “Supermoon coming next Tuesday” that’s followed with a subhead of “Don’t bother looking, you can’t see it.”
So, a term that wasn’t really necessary in the first place, as astronomy had survived quite well without the term since prehistoric times, became divorced from half of the events it was supposed to describe as the term supermoon was essentially whittled down to only full moons that could be seen.
And if you happen to look straight up in the sky at a full moon at perigee, trust me, it doesn’t matter if it’s a supermoon or not – you won’t be able to tell the difference between that and any other full moon. Why? Because there’s nothing up there for you to compare the scale to. On the horizon as it comes up, perhaps you’ll notice a bit of difference if you’re attentive, but once that full moon gets up a bit in the sky.
And don’t expect to get one of those fabulously huge supermoon pics you see splashed all over the internet in the days following a supermoon unless you happen to know the trick to getting them, and here it is. Get to a place where you have a clear view of objects on a distant horizon, and use a telephoto lens. Those distant buildings on the horizon, or those hills or whatever, will be magnified somewhat, but the moon will be even more so. If you just pull out your cell phone and snap shots on the regular settings, you’re going to get shots that look like a regular full moon, because that’s pretty much what a supermoon looks like to the naked eye – just another full moon.
And as for those “traditional Native American” names associated with full moons, like the Sturgeon moon? Yes, those frustrate me too, because the media pretty much depends on the Old Farmer’s Almanac, a nontraditional, non-Native resource, for those names. Yes, they’re actually based on traditional names, but ones that were used by specific tribes in specific regions. What they fail to do is to recognize the intimate relationships between Native tribes and their natural settings, and how the moon has been used for centuries as an integral part of timekeeping and marking the flow of local change.
Frankly, it’s more of a wink to Native American cultures than a nod. The Old Farmer’s Almanac page describing the Sturgeon moon notes that the name is used “because the giant sturgeon of the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain were most readily caught during this part of the summer,” but doesn’t mention Native Americans as the source, let alone the Algonquin people whose observations of sturgeon populations at this time of year most likely gave rise to the association.
But swarming sturgeon in August is of little relevance to the vast majority of Native Americans who have never been dependent on those monster fish for their life cycles. Tribes associated the cycle of full moons with the events occurring in their environment that were most relevant to them. For example, in the hot and humid August of the South, the Tunica tribe of Louisiana has traditional referred to this full moon as the Hot Moon. Nothing remotely fishy about that.
Indeed, right here among us, it would be more accurate to refer to the August full moon as Manoominike-giizis, the Ricing Moon, as it is called by the Ojibwe people of the region for whom the ripening and harvesting of wild rice is one of the pillars of their historic culture. That’s not to discount the large number of sturgeons to be found in Minnesota’s lakes and rivers, but the Ojibwe did not come here for the fish. Central to their great migration story was the prophecy that urged them to move west to the land where “food grows on water,” a clear reference to wild rice.
If anything, I find that the glib pronouncement of a particular full moon that is given a “traditional Native American name” by a national media source looking for click-throughs on their website only serves to starkly highlight how divorced modern society has become from the co-existence we once shared with the land and the skies.
Meanwhile, around the world in Sri Lanka, where each full moon is an official state holiday, Sri Lankan Buddhists just celebrated Nikini Poya. Full moons there have different names and meanings there than here, and no sturgeon to speak of.
So, yes, call me a spoil sport, a curmudgeon, a sour puss, a grump, call me whatever you’d like – I’ll hold onto my little pet peeve but not begrudge it if you keep on enjoying the supermoons as they come, and the names others give them. And if in so doing you take a few moments to marvel about your tiny little space in this vast, marvelous Universe, well, who really cares in that instant what anyone else calls the moon? Its name is whatever it speaks to you in that moment.