Early American colonists brought with them traditional European names for the full moons, of which most years have 12. There they met original Americans, especially the Algonquins, who had their own full moon names based on features of the seasons. The popular old English list started the year with the Moon After Yule, followed by the Wolf Moon, the Lenten Moon, and in April, the Egg Moon. The Algonquins called the April full moon the Pink Moon, a name many new American farmers also adopted. It marks the newly blooming flowers of the wild phlox (Phlox subulata) which cover the ground in parts of the Northeast like a pink blanket with the arrival of Spring. This year the Pink Moon will be seen on Monday evening, April 26th.
Pink Moon is also a 1972 album by Nick Drake, his third and final one before he died at age 26. Although it was barely noticed on its release, it is now considered to be one of the very greatest British folk albums (it finally achieved some popularity decades later, after the title song was used in a Volkswagen commercial in 1999). Nick Drake suffered from a worsening depression; for Pink Moon he eschewed the string and horn arrangements of his previous albums and recorded a brief, haunting set of songs with only spare finger-picked guitar to accompany his murmuring voice. He overdubbed a little piano as well on the title track. You can listen to it in full on the library's streaming music service hoopla.
The biggest and brightest object in the night sky, the moon has been studied and followed by people everywhere since antiquity. The moon is a quarter of the size of the earth, the largest ratio of a moon to its planet in our solar system. It is approximately 238,000 miles away, a distance shorter than many modern people will traverse over the Earth’s surface in their lifetimes. As such, the earth and the moon form almost a dual-planet system, the moon spinning around the earth as the earth spins around the sun. The moon’s orbital path around the earth is slightly elliptical—thus the 2021 Pink Moon will be our first supermoon of the year, when the full moon is also at the perigee of this elliptical orbit, or closest to earth. Its orbit is also tilted on a 5-degree angle called the ecliptic, varying its nightly position relative to the path of the sun across the sky accordingly. It takes 29 ½ days for the moon to rotate around its axis, which is also the time it takes to complete one rotation around the earth; this is why the same face of the moon is always turned towards us. In the distant past it rotated much faster, but over millions of years the earth’s gravity slowed it down such that the two are now in synch.
Twelve moon months of 29 ½ days each (the synodic month or lunation, distinct from the 27.3 days of the sidereal month it takes the moon to return to its apparent position relative to the ‘fixed’ stars) would add up to a 354-day year; thirteen would make 383.5 days. Thus the moon calendar is out of phase with the solar year of 365 ¼ days, which governs the seasons for planting and harvest. Still, the moon exerts a powerful influence and its constant changes are beguiling. Most ancient civilizations used moon calendars, many of which are still in use; extra months, or intercalations, would be added to keep pace with the solar year. Ancient Egyptian and Greek calendars were lunar. The Roman one began that way, but was gradually merged with the solar year into the Julian calendar under Julius Caesar; reformed again by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, partly to better accommodate Christian religious holidays, into the Gregorian calendar we still use today. The Jewish calendar began with the first sighting of the crescent moon, which determined the start date of each of 12 lunar months; the modern version was adopted in the fourth century and is based on a 19-year cycle of lunations. The traditional Islamic calendar is based on a lunation cycle of 33 years. Many Hindu religious observances are based on an ancient lunar calendar. The oldest lunar calendar still in use is perhaps the traditional Chinese one, estimated to have been developed in the Third Millenium B.C., with a 60-year cycle of months divided into five smaller cycles of 12 years, each of which is named for an animal.
Many cultures and people have viewed the full moon as a good omen, or a bad one. It has been associated with wild and unpredictable behavior or mental derangement since the time of Hippocrates; some recent studies of emergency rooms and crime statistics purport to have debunked this connection. Moon lore is rich and complex—there are moon gods (Thoth, Diana, Artemis), moon creatures (werewolves, vampires), and endless moon superstitions all around the world. In some traditions, the moon is the silvery portal to heaven where souls travel after death. The moon tends to be viewed as feminine, seductive, marine; a cool, mysterious, quick-traveling counterpart to the harsh, blazing sun.
For the Algonquins, the Pink Moon was a happy moon, heralding the end of winter and the coming of spring. And according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, it is extra good luck for the full moon to appear on a Monday or moon-day, as this year’s Pink Moon will. Nick Drake’s lyrics seem to take a more somber view:
Saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get ye all
And it's a pink moon
Pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon—Nick Drake
Possibly he was not referring to the same moon as the Algonquins at all—or perhaps to something more internal. Many of the lyrics on his final album seem to have an inscrutable private meaning. Maybe he is referring not to the April fertility moon, but rather to the full moon’s reddish and looming appearance when it rises just after sunset, as the Hunter’s Moon often does in autumn, sometimes called a ‘blood moon’— which can seem menacing or fearsome. In a review for Pitchfork, Jayson Greene writes that “a ‘pink moon’ is a baleful symbol, a sign of impending death or calamity,” but I have been unable to trace this idea further in my admittedly brief research (although last April, there was much online concern that the Pink Moon was a bad omen because of the coronavirus pandemic spreading around the world just then).
Greene notes that Drake does not sing these lines in a sad or angry way, but rather in a more contemplative tone. Maybe Drake’s moon is not too different from the Algonquin moon after all: maybe what he means is that life gets us all in the end or love. Or perhaps he is thinking of the moon’s supposed influence on one’s mental health. He died of an overdose of antidepressant pills in his bedroom at his parents’ home around three years later, in November 1974; no one knows whether this was intentional or accidental. His three albums, which today are regarded as classics, had around that time only sold a combined total of some 4,000 copies.