The Full Black-billed Magpie Moon

Uncle Frank had an observatory at the bottom of his garden and a penny-farthing bicycle. Either one would have made him fascinating to a kid, but while the bicycle was a cool curiosity (I remember him briefly riding it around out back), we preferred the observatory. (In truth, Frank probably wasn’t related to us at all. He was more likely an old school chum of dad’s, in which case I feel sure the “Uncle” part, which I could very well have concocted on my own, was an honorific, the rare and eccentric avuncular.) Children tend not to analyze these things, but a building dedicated to star-gazing — like a train station, a glass-bottomed boat, or an airport — falls in an intersection between two worlds. We glimpse the other in its schedules, platforms, and lenses. Adventure is always about transformation, isn’t it? A scene-change promises a metamorphosis, and the objects and environments that effect it quicken the pulse; they transpose us.

Of a certain age and design, though, things that lie between worlds can be beautiful in their own right, like the Antwerpen-Centraal railway station or St Pancras. And that may be why, some years back, I bought a small telescope at Christmas, a Celestron Astromaster 114. I’d never wanted one before. Neither had Jane, although it was ostensibly for her. It was one of those things that a place brings into being. Our living room opens onto the upper deck of the house, oriented directly to the east, so that the sun and moon rise conspicuously, morning or evening, into the clear skies of northern Colorado. Why not put a proper telescope on the wooden boards? The Astromaster 114 came with a German equatorial mount on a three-foot-high steel tripod, 269x magnification at the upper end, and an impressive 18” optical tube. After initial setup and occasional moon gazing, it gathered dust for years. That was okay with me. It had a steampunk beauty to it, and like Uncle Frank’s observatory, most of its magic lay in what it promised and not in its cratered glimpses of moon, trembling in the eyepiece. The fundamental contradiction of astronomy is that what appears ancient and fixed in the night sky is actually moving quite rapidly, apart from the vibration of foot traffic on the deck, so that as soon as you’ve brought something into focus, it slips off again, out of range or clarity.

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I’d almost forgotten the full moon of November 2018. It came on Thanksgiving night in the Mountain time zone, just before midnight, and so it was lost in the bustle of friends and dinner. Only on the night after did I remember it was the Beaver Moon, and then I remembered something else: the telescope had come with night sky software, complete with star charts and specifications for 10,000 celestial objects one could track in real time. I’d never installed it. So I did. And then shortly after moonrise, while the bright satellite was still 99.07% full, I watched its altitude increase in degrees, arcminutes, and arcseconds. I jotted down azimuth (which sounded a lot like a fizzy tablet you took in the morning for a hangover) and something called Right Ascension and Declination. Outside, the moon rose warm-orange and paled as it slipped into cloud. It is called the Beaver Moon either because November was a good time to set traps for the little buggers, or because they were thought to be preparing for winter (“Check the weather stripping, Betty! Cover the dam windows! Mince pies! Where are my mince pies?!”). We have beavers locally, though not on Red Cedar: you can see their work along the Cache la Poudre River in the Kingfisher Point Natural Area, or if you’re feeling really adventurous, up near Cameron Pass, in State Forest State Park along the Michigan River, where felled aspen litter the banks. Romantic though they are, most traditional names for the full moons come from Eastern Woodlands tribes or early European settlers. They don’t necessarily represent the high plains of northern Colorado. If they did, the November moon might be better called the Full Black-billed Magpie Moon — and December, the Full Bobcat Moon.

When it comes to celestial coordinates, Right Ascension and Declination are global, but the moon’s altitude and azimuth are local: it depends on where you are, which seems to me always a good place to start. And in that case, the Mi’kmaq can have their Freezing River Moon, and Uncle Frank can have his Hedgehog Moon. The Full Magpie Moon will suit us just fine.

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