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ACT's Nature Corner: The Moon

By Joan Hull

Did you see the full moon last week? Did you know what made it special?

As children, the moon is usually the first thing we can identify in the night sky. Let’s explore some things about our nearest celestial neighbor both scientific and fanciful. The moon is almost 240,00 miles from the earth. That’s almost 10 times around the earth’s equator. It takes the moon about 29 ½ days to completely revolve around the earth. The moon gives off no light of its own, the light we see is a reflection of the sun. The light we see shining from the moon is the reflection of sunlight hitting the moon. The illustration below shows that the sun is always lighting up half of the moon surface. However, because of our position on earth relative to where the position of the moon we only see certain portions of the moon.

The phases are given different names that can be confusing but are determined by the shape of light we see and if the light is getting more or less each night.

  • Shapesfull (circle), crescent shape, gibbous (meaning the light we see is more than ½ but less than full), quarter (circle).

  • Getting brighter waxing, as in waxing gibbous or first, as in first quarter

  • Getting less bright – waning as in waning gibbous or last as in last quarter

  • No light = a new moon

I find myself, that I don’t worry about the names but do enjoy knowing if the moon’s light will be increasing or decreasing. An easy way to tell is to look at the right edge of the moon. Is it light or dark? If it is lighted the moon will be getting bigger each night. If the right edge is dark then the moon will be getting less visible each night.

Have you ever noticed how big the moon looks when it’s close to horizon and how much smaller it looks when it is high in the sky? It’ actually an optical illusion. Try this next time you see the moon rising. Raise and fully extent your arm and point to the moon. Measure the width of your finger compared to the width of the moon. The width of my finger is about twice the width of the rising moon, but yours will be different. Now try to remember what you found till later that night. When the moon is much higher in the sky take the same measurement again. You will see that it is the same. The same will happen if you take a picture of the moon at different times during a night. In the photos the moon is always the same. Science has not yet been able to explain the illusion. Feel free to share the illusion with your friends you may even win a bet.

Throughout the world different cultures have given names to full moons during the year. Many of the full moon names used in the US come to us from Native American cultures. They illustrate different thing happening in the natural world at that particular time of year. The Celts, Anglo Saxons, and medieval peoples of Europe have their own names as well as the Chinese and other Asian people. In the southern Hemisphere many names are the same but used for different months. For instance, in the Maine the February full moon is known as the Snow Moon while in southern hemisphere August is called the Snow Moon. Below are some of the more popular names for full moons in Maine.

Full Moon Names:

January - the Wolf Moon after the howling of hungry wolves over the lack of food in midwinter. Other names for this month's full moon include old moon and ice moon.

February - the Snow Moon, the month typically of biting cold, blizzards and storms. Other names include storm moon and hunger moon.

March - the Worm Moon, the last full moon of winter. We will often see worms appearing out of the thawing ground. Other names include the sap moon, a time for tapping for maple syrup, chaste moon, death moon, crust moon.

April - the Pink Moon, it has nothing to do with the color of the moon but is named after a particular flower called the moss pink or creeping phlox (Phlox subulate) that frequently blooms in April. In other places, this moon may be called the sprouting grass moon, the egg moon, and the fish moon.

May – the Flower Moon, the month of blooming spring flowers. Other names include the hare moon, the corn planting moon, and the milk moon.

June - Strawberry Moon, June’s moon gets its name for the time of harvesting strawberries in North America. Europeans have dubbed it the rose moon, while other cultures named it the hot moon for the beginning of the summer heat.

July - Buck Moon, this is the time deer shed their antlers in this Native American named moon. Some refer to this moon as the thunder moon, due to the summer storms in this month. Other names include the hay moon, after the July hay harvest.

August - Sturgeon Moon, North American fishing tribes named this month’s moon in reference to the abundance of sturgeon in August. It's also been called the green corn moon, the grain moon, and the red moon for the reddish hue the moon often takes on in the summer haze.

September - Full Corn Moon notes that this is the time for harvesting corn at the end of summer. This moon is also sometimes named the barley moon, and it is often the nearest full moon to the autumnal equinox, earning the additional title of 'harvest moon'.

October - Hunter's Moon, gets its name as the time to hunt for deer, moose, and other game to feed the family through the winter. Other names include the travel moon, when it is time to move to winter quarters and the dying grass moon.

November - Beaver Moon, there is some disagreement over the origin of November's beaver moon name. Some say it comes from Native Americans setting beaver traps during this month, while others say the name comes from the heavy activity of beavers building their winter dams. Another name is the frost moon.

December - Cold Moon, Named for the beginning of winter and the shortening of days. Other names include the long night moon and the oak moon.

Other moon names:

Blue moon – There are usually 12 full moons during the year, but 12 full rotations of the moon only take 354 days, 11 short of a year. Because of this every 2 and a half years we have an extra full moon. One month will have two full moons. The second one is called a Blue Moon.

Harvest moon – You may have noticed that the term harvest moon was not one of the twelve names given to particular months. A harvest moon refers to the nearest full moon to September 21st, the autumnal equinox and may fall in either September or October.

Paschal MoonThis is the first full moon after March 21st, the spring equinox. It is named paschal because it is used to determine the date of Easter. Easter is celebrated the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon. In 2022 the first full moon after 3/21/2022 was on Saturday April 16. So last Saturday was the Paschal Moon making Easter 2022 on Sunday April 17.

So, what do you see when you look at the moon? Light and dark areas or something more? The light areas are the mountains or highlands of the moon and are made up of whitish minerals. The dark area are solidified volcanic lava flows and more level but for craters made from crashing meteors. They are called “mares,” Latin for “seas” although they have never contained water. You may also be able to the Tycho Crater, located in the southern are of the moon. It is an impact craters that is not particularly big (53 miles across) but relatively new. The rays from the crater’s center, created as a result of the massive impact force which threw material outward are quite bright and white. All crater rays start out this way but gradually darken when exposed to space and seem to disappear.

What else do you “see” ? Many cultures see different images when they look at the moon. Most of us are familiar with the “man in the moon” but other cultures see rabbits, toads, trees, and a woman.

The idea of seeing patterns in inanimate objects is called pareidolia. A very human thing to do whether you see an elephant in a cloud or remember seeing The Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire, or a religious figure on a piece of toast.

In India some see the handprints of Mata the mother of all living things when she caressed the cheeks of her twins as she sent them to become the sun and the moon.

Many European cultures see either a man or woman carrying a bundle of sticks, condemned for eternity to stay on the moon for a religious transgression.

In Hawaiian culture a banyan tree is seen where the woman Hina uses the tree to make cloth for the gods.

Let’s take a look at two other examples.

The rabbit in the moon is seen by many different cultures. In Japanese folklore a fox a monkey and a rabbit decide to practice charity on the day of the full moon. They meet an old man in the woods. The hungry man begs the animals for food, the fox gave a fish, the monkey some nuts but the rabbit who only ate grass had nothing to give. The rabbit decided to offer himself as a meal and hopped onto the old man’s fire. The old man who was the man of the moon in disguise was so awed by this sacrifice that he saved the rabbit and gave him immortal life by taking the rabbit back with him where you can see them both on the face of the full moon.

This story also has a parallel in Aztec lore where the man in the moon is Quetzalcoatl an Aztec god.

In Chinese folklore there is the story of Chang’e who stole the elixir of immortality from her husband and escaped to the moon with the help of the moon or jade rabbit who you can still see when on the face of the full moon continuously pounding out a special mochi or rice cakes containing the immortality elixir for the immortals.

Different stories show the rabbit facing different directions. Personally, at this time of year I see the rabbit holding an Easter egg.

Hawaiian folklore has several stories of Hina a beautiful woman who climbed a helpful rainbow to live on the moon. In one version she was a wonderful maker of cloth from the banyan tree. She was in great demand but got no help from an abusive husband and ungrateful children and so decided to live on the moon which she reached via a helpful rainbow. Mahina is the Hawaiian word for moon, and it is said on some nights you will see the shape of the banyan tree or Hina herself on the moon.

Now it’s time to stop reading and get outside and see what you can see when you look up at the moon. I hope this article helps you see something new and have fun while you’re doing it.

Thank you and send any thoughts or comments to


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