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‘Shine on, Harvest Moon’

The Harvest Moon casts a golden glow as it rises over a grain field. Photo courtesy of the NASA Science Newsletter

Laura Dean Bennett
Contributing Writer

If the spectacular show that the solar eclipse just put on has whetted your appetite for another astronomical extravaganza, you are in luck.

It’s nearly time for the Harvest Moon – the closest, brightest and most outrageously beautiful full moon of the year. 
Usually the Harvest Moon falls in September. 

The term “Harvest Moon” refers to the full moon which comes closest to the autumnal equinox. 

And in case you’ve forgotten, the autumnal equinox is the date when our days officially start getting shorter. 

On your calendar, if it doesn’t say “Autumnal Equinox,” it will probably say “First Day of Fall.” This year, that date is September 22. 

September’s full moon will be on the night of September 6.

Oddly enough, this year, the October full moon – usually called the Hunter’s Moon – is three days closer to the autumnal equinox than the September full moon. 

So, officially, the October 5 full moon will be this year’s Harvest Moon. 

This only happens once or twice in a decade, and it’s happening this year. It’s like we get two Harvest moons this year.

But whether it falls in September or October, the Harvest moon is a special time. 

For the few nights just before and just after the Harvest Moon, it seems like there’s a full moon every night. 

Known as the “Harvest Moon Effect,” this happens because of the low angle of the moon’s orbit around the Earth. 

The closeness to the horizon also causes the Harvest Moon to show off in brilliant colors – orange, yellow or even red – because of how the Earth’s atmosphere bends the light. 

And while the full moon is always a favorite subject for photographers, the Harvest Moon makes for an even more magical picture. 

This effect gives everyone in the Northern Hemisphere some extra evening light to work by, just when that light is needed most – for gathering crops – hence the name that the Native Americans gave it – the “Harvest Moon.”

September’s full moon was also known to Native American tribes as the “Full Corn Moon” because it corresponded with the ripening of their most important crop – corn. 

It’s also been called the “Barley Moon,” the “Moon When Calves Grow Hair” and the “Moon of Scarlet Plums.”

And the “Harvest Moon” wasn’t only called that by the Native Americans and early settlers. It’s been known by that same name in many languages around the world for thousands of years.

Now, around these parts, I can tell you that for most of us, autumnal equinox or no, fall has already started. 

As I’m writing this story, there are no birds singing at all. 

The change is particularly noticeable as just the other day I remember mentioning that the birds woke me up with a loud and especially exuberant concert which lasted all day. 

Maybe it was their way of saying goodbye to their summer home before leaving on their long migration south.

The leaves are starting to turn and a few are even drifting down from their trees.

The farmers are finishing their second cutting of hay and our apples are nearly ready for picking.

Our gardens are furiously producing – growing and ripening as fast as they can to beat the coming frosts.

The harvest is upon us.

More than likely, humans have always felt the same stirrings we feel during the change of seasons. It feels like a definite sense of urgency – time to do something.

Now, it’s time to gather your grapes, pick the last of your garden crops and flowers, cut your last hay, butcher hogs and beeves and get whatever wood you’ll need piled up near the door.

It’s soon going to be apple picking and potato digging time. 

Like the animals who live around and among us, it’s time to get ready for winter.

For thousands of years, humans have counted their blessings and gathered their crops at this time of year, and sometimes, when necessary, picked, cut or dug their crops by the light of the big, bright, full moon in September. 

Thankfully, native American crops became staples to early European settlers of North America, who were taught how to grow them by the indigenous people.

Probably one of the most important contributions to the settlers’ livelihood and the New World’s economy was the adoption of the Native American ways of raising their crops, chiefly tobacco and corn.

The harvests gathered by the Harvest Moon by our ancestors in these parts included beans, corn, squash, peas, okra, peppers, squash and pumpkins. 

Not here in the Allegheny Mountains, but in some of the early American settlements, tobacco, rice and peanuts were also grown. 

Tobacco was a valuable crop and an important export, but corn was the most essential single crop to all farmers, as it was grown all over in the New World and was used to feed both people and livestock. 

But growing any crop was hard work. Before there were tractors, farming was done by hand. 

Huge tracts of land had to be cleared, – by hand – of huge trees and stubborn rocks and farmed with blister-raising plows, hoes, scythes, axes and shovels.  

If a frontier farmer was lucky, he would have had a horse or a mule, a willing wife, a passel of children and maybe even a willing neighbor helping him in the field. 

But a really fortunate farmer would have also had a team of oxen – the 18th Century equivalent to an air conditioned John Deere.

Even before we called this time of year “September,” we knew that this was our best, and maybe, last chance to gather food for the winter before the killing frosts and freezes.

When farmers had their crops ready for harvesting, neighbors who lived close enough would sometimes come and help with the harvest.

With the weather still hospitable to being outdoors, what sometimes followed a successful harvest would be a gathering of family, friends and neighbors.

Thankful prayers to the Creator and gratitude to neighbors led to a feast of fresh food from the garden. Then the long day of harvesting would often end with fiddle music and quadrille, or “square” dancing. 

Young people of courting age must have looked forward to harvest time quite keenly, as it might well have been the best time during the whole year to meet members of the opposite sex and start, or renew, a courtship. 

The Harvest Moon reminds us that our time to work and play in the outdoors is coming to an end for another year. 

It’s time to can the vegetables, preserve the fruit, wrap the potatoes in newspaper and store them away in the cellar, eat corn on the cob and tomato sandwiches until they come out of our ears. 

It’s time to think about cleaning and storing the garden tools and planning for the fall pruning.
Today, although we certainly do gather at each other’s farms to help make hay and gather the bounty from our gardens and orchards, we have the luxury of celebrating the harvest in lots of other ways, too.

There are harvest fairs and festivals, square dances, corn mazes, apple butter stirrings and cider-making parties to attend. 

It’s as though we go into one last joyful fling of socializing outdoors before the icy winds of winter conspire to keep us at home in front of the fire. 

The Harvest Moon is the harbinger of all of that. 

I am going to call the September full moon “my Harvest Moon.” 

It will remind me not to tarry –  to finish harvesting and canning the last of my tomatoes, get ready to pick my apples and grapes and gather the last blossoms of summer. 

By the time the real Harvest Moon comes around in October, I should be well on my way to being ready for winter. The porch furniture will be put away or covered and the pruning and outside repairs will be underway before the snow flies.

With any luck, the weather will be clear on both nights – September 6 and October 5 – and I’ll be able to enjoy sitting outside by the fire, watching a big, bright Harvest Moon – twice. 

The seasons change, and we must change with them.  

Isn’t it wonderful?

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