That Saturday was a night of strange conjuctions in the celestial realm. The Friday before had been the full moon and the Sunday to follow was the vernal equinox. Some call the last full moon of winter the Worm Moon, because of the earthworms that are starting to push up through the soil. This equinox, meanwhile, marks the first day of astronomical spring when the sun crosses the equator from south to north. It is also the moment of equal balance between day and night, the hinge point when winter darkness starts giving way to summer light. Even more special for us, in the Highlands of Scotland, the weather that Saturday was clear and bright.
Alistair and I shoved a tent, sleeping bags, mats, stove and kettle into rucksacks and set off. Our plan was to camp beside the nearby loch to enjoy the huge moon at night and the rising sun in the morning. But as we walked down in the darkness at 8.30 pm I wondered aloud what had happened to the moon. The sky was an inky well, a scattering of stars glinting on its black waters. A strong breeze shivered the trees. No sign of a moon, worm or otherwise.
Native American peoples have different names for this moon. To the Northern Ojibwe it is the Crow Comes Back Moon, because of the bird’s seasonal return, to others the Sugar Moon, because of the sap rising. Right now, to me, it was just the invisible moon and a mystery.
Directly above us, a vast, smooth cloud hung so high it was completely impervious to the wind. Its northern end was black, dissolving into the sky around, but as it reached south its colour softened to grey till the southern-most edges were shining. They looked like curves of foam at the rim of dark waves. And then I realised. Their unearthly glow was from the absent moon. It was still hidden behind the Cairngorm mountains to the south-east, still rising, but already casting its silver light.
The Anglo Saxons called it the Lenten Moon. The name does not derive so much from the Christian period of Lent, but rather the other way around. ‘Lenten’ came from the old English word for ‘lengthening’ of daylight hours and was applied to the religious season. It is followed by the Paschal – or Passover – Moon, and Easter in the western church is the first Sunday after this.
Just as we got to the gate at the lochside, our elusive moon appeared. I don’t remember if I have ever watched a full moon rise before but I do know I have never been so captured by it. As it edged up over the crest of the Feshie hills, this moon was not just full, but vast. And it wasn’t silver, either. It was gold. No photograph can do it justice, but certainly not the ones from my cracked old phone. I also can’t explain the ghostly green satellite above right of the moon. I never saw it in the sky, so perhaps it is a quirk of the camera.
I trained my binoculars on the new-risen moon and took a breath. There were all the familiar craters and crevices and cracks, all those faraway mountains and empty oceans. But there, too, was an extraordinary optical illusion. A rim of flame rippled all around the golden disc. It was as if the sun was not just lending its fierce light but had dipped the moon in petrol and breathed dragon fire across it.
No worm, this moon, but a great, glorious presence, a swelling globe of light against the dark sky. As we rounded the corner of a hill, a powerful wind came whipping across the loch and we had to find a sheltered hollow for the tent. Dumping it, we stretched out on a high bank above to watch the moon glide up the sky like a queen, sending a shining path over the water below her. One old English name for her is the Chaste Moon because of the purity of spring and the denials of lent, but that sounds too pale and deprived for this radiant creature. She was far more the Eagle Moon of the Algonquin people.
When we finally tore ourselves away and crawled into our down bags, sleep was routed by the shaking of the tent and the roaring of the leafless oaks overhead. I understood why the Celts called this the Wind Moon and the Pueblo the Wind Strong Moon. Some folks also named her the Plough Moon, because she marks the time of year to begin turning the fields. This, of course, pulls up those ubiquitous earthworms, and with them, her ugly old name again.
By morning, our Many-Named Moon is gone and the wind with her. In the soft dawn, all is still and quiet, but for the birds. The piping oystercatchers. The dip-diving ducks. A heron. Away on the line of the Feshie hills, not far from the spot the moon rose yesterday, another light is brimming.