Phases of the moon

During the lock down the weather in Scotland has been exceptional. None of those dank, dreich grey days with grey scudding clouds or days when the sky presses down like a heavy blanket and the relentless rain dampens body and soul. There has been a long period of sunny weather and we have been able to watch spring unfurl. From bare branches to a profusion of leaves, from bud to blossom and leaf, we have had time and opportunity to watch and enjoy the trees, the flowers and the busy flights of birds and insects as they react to springtime.

A bonus of the fine weather has been clear skies at night and a chance to observe the stars. With no necessity to hurry and scurry through life there has been the opportunity to look around, to look up instead of straight ahead and to appreciate the environment around us.

Crescent moon in the west over the trees with Venus above

About ten days ago I noticed a new crescent moon in the west over the trees and a bright star above it. The brightness of the star and its rapid rate of movement suggested this was not a star but the planet Venus, confirmed by looking at one of the interactive night sky maps for my location available on the web.

Since then I have looked at the moon most evenings. In Scotland we are sufficiently far north to get short winter days (7h on Dec 21st) and long summer days (>17h on June 21st), so even between this new and full moon the daylength has increased by 1h. Last night was the full moon, known traditionally as the Flower Moon (May).

Crescent moon end of April W
Full “Flower” moon ESE in same cycle

The phases of the moon was an important interest in ancient times with each month roughly equivalent to a lunar cycle described by some as a “calendar in the sky”. Alexander Marshack, a journalist, writing in the 1960’s believed that cave drawings provide evidence that paleolithic man used the moon as a calendar. This idea was incorporated within “The Land of Painted Caves”, a book in the fascinating Earth’s Children series by Jean Auel about the lives, culture and beliefs of paleolithic man in Europe. During her training to become a spiritual leader, Ayla spends time studying the phases of the moon and the passage of the moon across the sky.

The Sumerian civilisation used a lunar calendar , which was adopted by the Babylonian empire in the 18th century BC. The lunar cycle is 29.5 days, so the Sumerians, who lived in what is now southern Iraq, had to reconcile the lunar year of 354 days with the solar year of c. 365 days. They did this by add an intercalating month and their New Years Day was around the spring equinox, when the day and night lengths are the same.

For centuries afterwards many civilisations used a lunisolar calendar with the months based on the lunar cyle and the year on the solar cycle. Different civilisations made the correction in different ways but there were also revisions necessary as the estimation of the solar year became more precise. The Julian calendar, formulated in the time of Julius Caesar was the forerunner of the Gregorian calendar devised in 1582. .

Many ancient civilisations were interested in the study of the sun, moon and stars and had considerable knowledge about their movements, though it was not until Pope Gregorys time that the theory of the earth moving round the sun was proposed by Copernicus. There is evidence of this in the structures found in Orkney: the burial mound at Maeshowe, and the nearby monolith, the Barnhouse Stone, constructed by Neolithic man c 2,800 BC. On the day of the winter solstice, the sun sets over the top of the Barnhouse Stone and the last rays of the sun travel through the entrance passage to illuminate Maeshowe’s inner chamber.

Despite the modern calendar being solar-based, the moon still has its place in most diaries and calendars with tables of the phases of the moon. We have a rich lexicon of words to describe the four main phases (first quarter, full moon, last quarter and new moon): crescent, gibbous, waxing, waning etc. and despite our more urban existence we have reverted to naming the full moons for each month, by their traditional names, which mainly reflected the yearly agricultural cycle. It is remarkable that over different cultures and in widely different locations many of the names were basically the same.

The snow moon in February, the cold moon in December reflect the weather. The pink moon in April, flower moon in May and strawberry moon in June are named for the flowers that bloom in these months, while over the harvest period the moon in September is synonymous with harvesting: the corn moon , the barley moon or the harvest moon and the October moon is the Hunter’s moon.  Every three years the Harvest moon occurs in October because this moon is confusingly set as the one closest to the solar equinox on September 21st-22nd.

Unsurprisingly the moon is associated with many myths and legends and has inspired a rich array of poems, music and art over a long period of time. A famous poem written by Zhang Ruoxu, a Chinese writer of the early Tang dynasty, is called “Spring River in the Flower Moon Night”. It describes the moonlit Yangtze river in spring and his reflections on life and our passage through it. The poet reflected that the moon has been there for millennia and that each generation of people come into the world and look at the same moon as their predecessors and their successors.  The moon has a constancy and a longevity that people from different times and locations can appreciate and can form an inspiration for art.

This blog started with my looking up quietly at the moon in the sky and taking time to enjoy it. The #ramblingthreads that followed have led me into a fascinating plethora of history, myths, poems and music that have enriched my experience. I end with three poems which I came across in this rambling and I hope they may stimulate you too.

1. Death and the Moon by Carol Ann Duffy.

The moon is nearer than where death took you

at the end of the old year. Cold as cash

in the sky’s dark pocket, its hard old face

is gold as a mask tonight. I break the ice

over the fish in my frozen pond, look up

as the ghosts of my wordless breath reach

for the stars. If I stood on the tip of my toes

and stretched, I could touch the edge of the moon.

I stooped at the lip of your open grave

to gather a fistful of earth, hard rain,

tough confetti, and tossed it down. It stuttered

like morse on the wood over your eyes, your tongue,

your soundless ears. Then as I slept my living sleep

the ground gulped you, swallowed you whole,

and though I was there when you died,

in the red cave of your widow’s unbearable cry,

and measured the space between last words

and silence, I cannot say where you are. Unreachable

by prayer, even if poems are prayers. Unseeable

in the air, even if souls are stars. I turn

to the house, its windows tender with light, the moon,

surely, only as far again as the roof. The goldfish

are tongues in the water’s mouth. The black night

is huge, mute, and you are further forever than that.

2.  The Moon was but a Chin of Gold by Emily Dickinson.

The Moon was but a Chin of Gold

A Night or two ago—

And now she turns Her perfect Face

Upon the World below—

Her Forehead is of Amplest Blonde—

Her Cheek—a Beryl hewn—

Her Eye unto the Summer Dew

The likest I have known—

Her Lips of Amber never part—

But what must be the smile

Upon Her Friend she could confer

Were such Her Silver Will—

And what a privilege to be

But the remotest Star—

For Certainty She take Her Way

Beside Your Palace Door—

Her Bonnet is the Firmament—

The Universe—Her Shoe—

The Stars—the Trinkets at Her Belt—

Her Dimities—of Blue—

3. Blue moon light by Jason Louis Gaydos

In the quiet calm of night, we walk hand in hand.

Down the path, across the sand.

Looking into your eyes, I feel the time is right.

Standing together, beneath the blue moon light.

The wind starts to blow, trees shake.

The ocean waves begin to break.

Holding you close, I feel the time is right

Holding one another, beneath the blue moon light.

The tide rises slowly, our feet in the surf.

A star falls from heaven, on its way towards the earth.

Making a wish, I feel the time is right.

Wishing together, beneath the blue moon light.

Our time has come, we must say good-bye.

Night has fallen in the November sky.

No need to cry, for this time was right.

To fall in love, beneath the blue moon light.

When the current restrictions on movement are lifted again, I will be able to visit  the beaches and cliffs of the Scottish coast, only a few miles away from here and see the pull and push  of the moon as the tides change. Meanwhile there are some myths and legends to read.

Written May 8th 2020

Paths and destinations

We went most summers to Devon when I was a child. My uncle owned a farm with land extending from inland pasture right to the edge of the cliffs overlooking the sea. I remember in sharp detail the walk from the farmyard to the beach. At the start the path was bordered by stone walls higher than me and then broadened out as it reached the open grass on the clifftop. Compensation for tired legs was the view along the coastline and the endless ocean stretching to the horizon. On a good day you could see right across to the Eddystone Lighthouse and, depending on the tide, the sharp needles of the rocks sticking into the sea like outstretched fingers.

Photo: Flete Estate

The view came with a promise and a certainty. Just round the corner there was a beach, with sand to play on and rock pools to explore. With renewed energy we would all start running down. From the top of the cliff a zigzag path, hidden behind the curve of the slope, led down to the beach. Initially the seashore was hidden completely from view but as we hurried down, more and more of the cove was revealed. Finally, the large old boathouse, constructed of big unhewn boulders with a corrugated iron roof came into sight.

With a few more jumps down the steps we had arrived, an afternoon of simple pleasures ahead. One of these was swimming out to the large rock in the middle of the bay that at low tide afforded a hollowed-out cavity to sit in. It took some years before I was a strong enough swimmer to reach it and the sense of achievement made it a favourite destination, despite the sharpness of the rocks.

Photo by Tom Fisk on

Journeys with a safe starting point, along a familiar path to reach a pleasurable destination are rare in life. More often journeys are like traveling through a maze. My interest in mazes started with a crayon, scribbling messily in a holiday drawing book, to find the path to the centre of the maze. As a child the other strong association with uncertain paths stemmed from rainy days, curled up on a sofa reading the Greek myths.

A favourite was the legend of Theseus, who was sent as part of the yearly tribute of young people to King Minos on Crete. Theseus succeeded in slaying the minotaur in the labyrinth below the palace at Knossos and helped by the gift of a thread from Ariadne he found his path back out of the maze. The story is a compelling one with a powerful story line, a mixture of triumph and tragedy, promises and betrayals that is known and liked by most of us. The strengths and frailties of the central characters grip our attention.

Perhaps subconsciously whenever we enter a maze, though we enjoy the excitement of finding the way through and the challenge of solving the puzzle, we also are pitting ourselves against the hand of fate. The more difficult the maze, the more pleasure we derive from reaching our goal. The modern attraction of mazes is borne out by the popularity of garden mazes, many built by the Victorians, and restored post 1945. The maze at Traquair House in the Scottish borders is nearby but there are many intriguing mazes throughout the UK. What is striking is that the effort to design, build and maintain a maze of several thousand beech, yew or cypress trees is high, yet we probably only spend part of an afternoon in good weather exploring. One possible reason for the current popularity of mazes (and for their enduring appeal over many centuries) is that they answer a hidden and recurrent need in all of us.

At present most of us not occupied in essential jobs have more time to reflect on the paths and directions we have taken. We can rue the blind alleys we entered and ponder the direction to take in the future. Although superficially we are all isolated in similar cells and the restriction on our movements are the same, our circumstances both physical and mental vary enormously.

The physical pressures on families living close together in a limited space are different from couples with a large house and garden. The situation for those having lost jobs contrasts starkly with those enjoying the luxury of a steady pension. Being isolated at home has difficulties but they are nothing compared to the hazards facing those working in hospitals. Plenty of advice has been published on getting through the coronavirus pandemic. Mostly, it seems, we are adapting well and creating a new way of life with support from neighbours and the resources from the virtual world of the internet.

Yet we have entered a new maze, complex and multidimensional, that shifts with time and circumstance. Each of us has to find our own way through it, like a traveller along the pilgrim’s path. We need to confront the issues in front of us whether guilt about not contributing, worry for friends and family, fear for the future or difficulty in coping with isolation. We may not be able to see round the next corner but we do have the time and opportunity to consider our route, to cut ourselves a stave for the journey and to decide what to put in our backpack and what to leave out.

Written 15th April 2020

Caribbean escape

After over two weeks of lockdown we are all getting into a routine of sorts and adjusting to this strange, isolated existence. Apart from one neighbour, who kindly brings round a loaf of bread and a carton of milk when required , the only person I have seen in the flesh is the guy at the “Click and Collect” , who brought out our plastic baskets of food and left them at a safe distance. True,  from our back windows we can see the occasional walker or jogger along the canal path and from our upstairs window there are a few  people on the pavement, particularly mothers taking children for some fresh air and a break from being constantly in the house but overall, as in the rest of the country, it is quiet on the streets. Even the occasional bus trundling by carries only a few well-spaced passengers.

Superficially, if one avoids the temptation to be glued to the news from the outside world, all is quiet and peaceful. This appearance has been reinforced by the unusually long spell of reasonably sunny weather, a welcome feature in what can be a windy part of Scotland. I can also count myself lucky as having a partner to share my thoughts, a companion over a glass of wine and a friend with whom to chat; throw in the luxury of a garden in which to enjoy the sunshine or to immerse in physical toil without thinking too much, there is little to complain about. Yet we find ourselves doing small things that show that deeper down there is an insecurity, based partly on the inability for us, as humans, to socialise in small groups face to face during the lockdown and partly as a result of our fears for our friends and family and for the future. 

Like many others we are using the time to start jobs that have been put off for far too long by the hurly-burly of life. In our case that is redecorating the bathroom. A while ago we decided to remove the wallpaper, curling at the edges in places from the damp, and paint the walls in blue to complement the large grey Italian tiles. The choice has narrowed down to three:  Caribbean Escape, Sail the Seas and Paradise Sky, the names redolent of escapism.

Photo by Pixabay on

As I painted A4 sheets of paper in each of these shades I wondered how much the current times have increased our need to find some quiet, safe mental space – to provide a temporary exit pathway from the present. Many years ago, when my wife had meningitis,  we had a few weeks of being on our own and found doing jigsaws and playing card games like cribbage relaxing as we had no television! Working on a 1500 butterfly jigsaw last week provided the same enjoyment and the same break from overthinking.

At times of stress we subconsciously move back to behavioural patterns that are comforting, whether reading a Dick Francis or Georgette Heyer novel or watching something uncomplicated on television.  The series “Death in Paradise” offers that in abundance- each episode revolving about solving a murder against the background of an idyllic island with palm beaches, crystal clear water and the bustle of life in the Caribbean. The fact that the formula is the same and that the frequency of murders rivals that of Midsomer Norton matters not a jot.

So when the bathroom is redecorated and I am sitting in the bath surrounded by a Caribbean sky, will I need to add mentally a background of some palm trees and physically a cocktail on the side or just dream faraway thoughts in a steamy atmosphere? The answer will probably depend on what unrecognised currents  in my subconscious are driving me to feel tense or relaxed. There is always more going on underwater than on the surface. 

Written 8th April 2020

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