On this first evening of September, come outside with me and celebrate the coming autumnal equinox with a tour of the night sky. (The weather forecast isn’t hopeful so we may have to use our imaginations.)
Overhead — we’ll also have to imagine there’s no light pollution — the path of gas and dust that marks the heart of our galaxy, the Milky Way, splits the sky.
To the south, let’s enjoy a final glimpse of Mars and Saturn as they close out their summer show in the constellation Scorpius.
Now where’s the moon? Nowhere to be found. It’s the time of new moon, also known as no moon. Our closest neighbour in space is hidden in the glare of the sun.
From new to first-quarter (to the eye, that’s a half-moon) to full to last-quarter and back to new: This cycle of phases is created by the changing angle of sunlight on the lunar surface as our satellite traces an elliptical loop around the Earth.
That’s the science behind the lunar cycle. But the changing face of the moon, particularly the timing of the 12 or 13 full phases during the year, carries a much deeper meaning in many cultures.
Ancient peoples such as the Mi’kmaq incorporated the lunar and other celestial cycles into their mythology as well as their daily lives. The Mi'kmaw calendar was based on crucial periods such as the hunt and the harvest.
The Mi’kmaw yearly ecological cycle is represented by natural events such as the running of the maple sap (Si’ko’ku’s), the croaking of frogs (Sqoljuiku’s) and moose calling their mates (Wikumkewiku’s). The common 12 Mi'kmaw moon times and full moons take their names from these events. Occasionally a 13th moon time is needed to keep the moontimes in step with the sun.
“Our people lived off the land so knowing what was coming up, what resource, was very important to their survival,” Cathy Jean LeBlanc, an expert in Mi’kmaw culture, told me in a recent interview from her home in Newcombville, Lunenburg County.
“Knowing that the animals were about to get nice and fat and we were going into fall and that would be a time when we would hunt.”
LeBlanc and Dartmouth amateur astronomer Dave Chapman are the creators of the education website Mi’kmaw Moons, which celebrates the time-keeping and scientific interpretation traditions of the Mi'kmaq.
For LeBlanc, it’s all about the connection between daily life and the natural world, which for her is synonymous with the spiritual world.
“We believe every single thing in nature has spirit,” said LeBlanc, who is a physical activity co-ordinator for Acadia First Nation and previously worked at Kejimkujik National Park and Historic Site as a cultural interpreter.
“And so for us, everything is living and that’s why we respect everything around us. ... The rocks, the water, the trees, everything to us is a living being with a spirit.”
Not surprisingly, it’s sometimes a challenge for her to reconcile that spiritual view with the scientific approach of somebody like Dave Chapman. But it’s been a positive learning experience for both of them.
“We were working together ... and we came across this concept of Two-Eyed Seeing,” Chapman recounted in an interview earlier this summer, an idea that was developed at Cape Breton University by Albert Marshall and Cheryl Bartlett.
“It’s where you kind of look at everything from a traditional indigenous perspective but also from a western scientific perspective.
“You can express it different ways, it means different things to different people. A blend, a yin-yang, two ways of seeing and knowing, and one respects the other.”
The Mi’kmaw Moons project grew out of a 2014 presentation the pair gave to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Halifax centre called In Search of the 13th Mi'kmaw Moon.
Mi'kmaw Moons collaborators Dave Chapman and Cathy Jean LeBlanc. (FACEBOOK)
“I’ve always been interested in the cultural side of astronomy,” said Chapman, a retired federal scientist who volunteers much of his time promoting astronomy at Kejimkujik and beyond.
“For many decades, I’ve read books about archeoastronomy, the astronomy of ancient peoples, different civilizations,” which led him to explore how modern aboriginal cultures in our region see and interpret the sky.
LeBlanc said she gets particular satisfaction from sharing her knowledge with young people, such as the children she works with at Acadia First Nation, and with family members.
“I always use my niece Holly for an example. She’s eight years old and she’s been learning about the Mi’kmaw moon times and she’s been celebrating and living those for the last two years. And that’s what’s important to me — it’s fine if you can give people 12 or 13 Mi’kmaq moon names and people can learn them and memorize them. But it’s that deep connection — once you have that connection to them (seasons), you don’t forget it.”
LeBlanc laughs as she recounts the first time that connection hit home for her. It was during a February day drive along the South Shore while holding a Bluetooth conversation with Chapman about the project. The glare off the snow was distracting her so “I said, 'Dave, I can’t see anything, I have to pull off and put my sunglasses on.'
“He said, ‘You know what time we’re in?’ And I said, 'Oh my God, I’m experiencing it, we’re in Snow-blinding Time!' ”
The Mi'kmaw Moons project has turned out to be a great success. LeBlanc and Chapman have held many presentations for groups such as the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, schools and the Minas Astronomy Group.
The work has gained international recognition as well. The pair submitted a paper on the project for the respected Griffith Observer Magazine, which is produced by the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The essay won second prize and will be published in the Observer in November, Chapman said.
LeBlanc admits she didn’t spend a lot of time looking at the sky before she became involved in the project.
“I’ve learned to look up and appreciate all the things above me,” she said.
And it's reinforced those important connections with her culture, ancestry and the natural world.
“The moon in our culture is our grandmother — so we have Mother Earth and Grandmother Moon. ... My ancestors would have been looking up and lying on the ground perhaps around the fires and wigwams and telling stories. I’d like to think there was this anticipation, this excitement about what was to come."
This article was originally published at www.localxpress.ca