Sturgeon Moon


The Moon in Full

In her monthly column The Moon in Full, Nina MacLaughlin illuminates humanity’s long-standing lunar fascination. Each installment is published in advance of the full moon.

George Henry, River Landscape by Moonlight, 1887, oil on canvas, 12 x 14 1/2″. Public domain, via Art UK.

bright as the blood / red edge of the moon

August, the year in its ripeness, when the shadows shift and the trees ache with green. It brings the Sturgeon Moon. Sturgeon, ancient bony-plated creature of lakes, rivers, and seas. A fish without scales, a fish without teeth, a fish that’s been swimming the depths of this earth for more than two hundred million years.

A shark-finned rolling pin, dinosaurian, the type of specimen displayed in a case in a museum of natural history, this murk-dweller lives fifty to sixty years and can grow up to twelve feet long. The largest on record was twenty-four feet, the length of more than three queen-size beds head to toe. Though they swim down where it’s dim, they’re also known for flinging their big bodies up out of the water and splashing back down. No one knows why. Joy, I bet. The slap-down sound can be heard up and down rivers. Mississippi, Missouri, Saint Lawrence, Volga, Ural, Danube. So common were sturgeon in the Hudson River in the nineteenth century, they were referred to as “Albany beef.”

They’re not so common now. It takes the females up to twenty years to reach sexual maturity. We’ve befouled their environments. And most of all, we’ve killed too many for their eggs, the caviar, tiny slick black moons. Two hundred years ago, the U.S. produced more caviar than any other country. The eggs became a luxury good for the rich to eat with toast points and sour cream. Briny squirt between the teeth, sturgeon essence popped from its pod—I picture these sad and stately sturgeon queens sliced down their centers, blood rivering on the cutting board, eggs scraped out from inside them, the future heaped on a tiny spoon, slick salt on the side of cocktailed tongue.

Sturgeon are grouped into four genera: Huso, Acipenser, Scaphirhynchus, Psuedoscaphirhynchus. And four whiskers dangle below their pointed noses, sensory organs called barbels that hang in front of their thick-lipped soft suctioning mouths. The barbels drift across the bottoms and beds of bodies of water and act as auxiliary eyes to help the fish find food. The August moon takes its name from the sturgeon because they were caught in most abundance here in the deep wane of summer. These slow-changing fish spend most of their long lives feeding in estuaries and river deltas.

returning each month / to the same delta

Four phases has the moon: first quarter, new moon, third quarter, full. The cycle, full to full again, takes about twenty-nine days. It wanes after the full moon, crescenting thinner until disappearing at the new moon, when its dark side is on nondisplay, and then it waxes back to full. Quick trick to know the phase: look to the shadow. On the left means waxing toward full; a shadowed right means postpeak, waning slim till gone.

Four phases has the menstrual cycle: follicular, ovulatory, luteal, menstrual. The cycle, blood to blood again, takes about twenty-eight days. Mensis is month in Latin. Mene is moon in ancient Greek. Menses is the blood matter that comes each month. The deep dark beginnings of our understanding and measuring of time—that great strange egg we all live in—involve the coupling of moon and blood. Take away clocks and calendars, minute hands and months, and how does a body experience time? In light, in temperature, in the paths tracked by stars and sun, in the shifting shape of the moon, in hunger, in rest, in the coming of blood. It’s been and been, mensis mene menses, our ever-moon, its gloom-glow throbbing white red gold black, and its in-sync-ness with the womb.

Four weeks has the month. Four seasons has the year. In chronobiology, circadian rhythms regulate our day-to-day, our twenty-four-hour waking-sleeping cycles. Infradian rhythms guide the longer stretches—hibernation, molting, mating, menstruation. “Everything has become speeded up and overcrowded,” wrote May Sarton in her journal in 1972. “So anything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow cycles of nature is a help.” When you look up and see the moon—as dusty smudge in day or glowing any phase at night—does a brief stillness settle? A momentary slowing? A temporary lull between interior and exterior time?

Historically, metaphorically, ovulation—full fertility, egg in action—is linked with the full moon, and menstruation is associated with the new moon, dark space-making absence. Seems backward to me, counterintuitive. Full moon, its tidal tug, a pull, a peak like the upside-down delta, mound the upside-down mountain, blood drawn on by the moon. A new moon, ovulation, all potential, a dark and heated energy of welcome and possibility. The egg a single pearled fullness, tiny inside the body’s dark.

braver than this / coming and coming in a surge / of passion, of pain

Scientists say there’s no correlation between the phase of the moon and the phase of the menstrual cycle; a person who menstruates is no more likely to bleed at the new moon than any other time. Fine. But that this inner cycle and outer cycle mirror each other, ticktocking in almost identical rhythms, no one will deny. Jung, writing of synchronicity, says, “It’s not a question of cause and effect, but a falling together in time.”

So the blood falls together in time with the moon. They speak a language together, fervent, whispery, that we haven’t translated, don’t need to. And so we fall together in time with each other. A case not so much of this then this, but this and this at once, drawn on simultaneously, coiled in a mysterious and ongoing exchange. It could be another way to describe love, surge of passion, pain, ancient, brave, two bodies—terrestrial, celestial, as we all are—falling together in time.

What makes you know you are a body? Hunger? Swallowing? Shitting? The dumb pain of a stubbed toe or a bit tongue? Lungs swelling and emptying in breath? Legs moving as you walk or run, skeleton holding up the weight of you? Feeling the boundaries of your body against another body in sex and then feeling them dissolve? An ache comes with the blood, I am a body, a crescent moon of pain, horns at the hip bones and a band of pain across the back. My friend Kim talked of watching a dissection of a human body. “The uterus,” she said, “it’s pink and it’s pretty, and it’s only this big.” She held up her hand and outlined a pear-size shape with her fingers. “If you had said this big,” I said, holding my hands the size of a football, “I would’ve believed you.”

The ache that accompanies the blood—muscular, dark, and deep in—can bring a different awareness of guts. It is a specific pain and varied, sometimes as though hundreds of tiny hands pull fistfuls off the wall of what’s inside, or stretch bands of interior flesh between their hands, pulling so tight it feels about to tear, taut membrane, pink gold sunset thin. The tiny hands sometimes punch and sometimes gash with axes. It is a cummerbund of pain that wraps tight and tugs every four weeks, every twenty-eight-nine days. It is a pronounced reminder that I am a body in time, that I am alive. There is no better red.

pray that it flows also / through animals / beautiful and faithful and ancient / and female and brave

Blood’s what the gods drink, someone told me recently.

What do they drink from, I wondered. Time itself, I think.

In a harpoon of a love poem called “Threat,” Gottfried Benn writes:

Know this:
I live beast days. I am a water hour.
At night my eyelids droop like forest and sky.
My love knows few words:
I like it in your blood.


Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Summer Solstice. Her previous columns for the Daily are Winter SolsticeSky GazingSummer SolsticeSenses of Dawn, and Novemberance.

Lines in italics from Lucille Clifton’s “poem in praise of menstruation.”