Merrimack River Current

Moon walking
(a sidebar piece to other related articles in this issue)
By Dinah Cardin
Friday, November 5, 2004

Newburyport has a cosmically-inclined history --- part practical, another part decidedly not. Mariners historically synchronized their comings and goings with the new and full moons. With the city's shallow tidal river port, traveling on the highest tides helped them to avoid running aground.

Henry Fitz, was born in Newburyport in 1808, the son of a printer who put out a religious weekly. Young Fitz liked to tinker in the shop and pursue his hobby of astronomy. He came to run a successful business, building small refractor telescopes. As his reputation grew, he began to build larger instruments for institutions and universities.

Controversial and quirky Lord Timothy Dexter, an entrepreneur, merchant, trader and ship owner who lived in Newburyport during the late 18th century, was obsessed with time keeping and with recording history. He did so by the lunar calendar and often spoke of his projects being finished in so many moons.1

"Anyone who identified with the sea or the land went by the moon," says Dominique Dear, a Dexter enthusiast, who has long considered the historical figure an "old friend."2

"When you speak with children, 'moon' is probably one of the first words they learn," she says. "Speaking with people in the community, many think it's so New Age, but it's not of course."3

The Dexter of local folklore was very much into astrology and used phrases like "Keeping Pace with the Heavens," inspired by Poor Richard's Almanac.4 With his affinity for the unusual and the highly unlikely, Dexter was said to be overly intrigued by the concept of a Blue Moon.5

This year's Yankee Homecoming celebration coincided with a blue moon which, tongue-in-cheek, coaxed an appearance by Dexter's spirit (or someone bearing a strong resemblance to it). He also appeared at the Newburyport Public Library last weekend during the Hunter Moon, along with a ruffle-shirted George Washington, 215 years to the day after the first president's visit.

Dexter predicted his own return, Dear says, informing his neighbors that he would be coming back to check up on them. Lord Tim said he would return every so often "toue see houe you all goue on," she says.

"He was an innovative, creative individual with many ideas he wanted to apply to his community," she says, "and he returns to make an assessment of where we are at a certain point in time."6

Though his thoughts take up a mere 24 pages, many are extrapolated from his anthology "A Pickle for the Knowing Ones," Dear says.7

A wealthy eccentric, he once owned the Tracy House where the public library now is housed and, in 1792, became the primary holder of the Essex County (Deer Island) Bridge. His final Newburyport residence was a house on High Street with the eccentricity of 40-plus wooden statues on the lawn. He staged his own funeral at least once, to witness the mourning of the community. When his wife, Elizabeth Frothingham, failed to appear appropriately distraught, it is believed he struck her several times.8

Some believe Lord Timothy created this eccentric character to con the community into believing he was a fool, when the shrewd Dexter was actually making money off everyone at the time.

But Dear has tried to keep Dexter's themes alive by forming an all-inclusive group called The Comity, which is committed to pursuing his ideals.9 Involvement is welcomed from the entire community, she says.

"Whether they are born here, live here or visit for a day, it's about history and history in the making."

[The quote, exchanged verbally and electronically: "Whether born here or drawn here to this special place called the Waterside ~ staying for a time, a Lifetime or a pastime."]

(This article replicated online with permission of the Merrimack River Current. Footnotes annotated by the Comity webmaster.)
Footnotes - taking "Moon walking" a step further, retracing history, and retracting any missteps or misstatements, forwarded in a Motion of Comity:

1When interviewed for this article --- in order to put the entire cosmology into perspective, had provided insight about the impact of the new and full moons to mariners' comings and goings in the Waterside's shallow port. However, while this "certain knowlege" is reflected in the introductory paragraph --- the journalist explained that the Current wished to use Timothy Dexter as the focal point of this sidebar piece, thus questions (and answers) would be framed with this specific angle.

With this selected focus, then responded to a series of questions (while offering some context) --- explaining that while Dexter's published anthology often references the term "monne" --- readers might assume he meant "months" because his spelling was very inconsistent and the two words were used interchangeably.

[Of course, mentioned that the etymology of the very word "month" is derived from the Old English word for "moon" and is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as "a measure of time corresponding nearly to the period of the moon's revolution and amounting to approximately 4 weeks or 30 days or 1/12 of a year."]

Further, when/if choosing not to publish Dexter's correspondence verbatim et spellatim, the printer would occasionally decipher his penned script inaccurately. Yet references to "holl Lite" and other celestial bodies reveal when the author referred to the moon itself.

[As both a planter and shipowner, it followed that Dexter would follow the "old ways" and mark progress by the lunar calendar --- and furthermore give credence to the old style calendar in use when he was born. As a prime example, when Dexter "casts pearls before swine" in a correspondence published in the Impartial Herald, he cites a goal for the new Republic, to be accomplished in "15 moons or a year."

While some readers might consider this to be a simple error in celestial calculation, Dexter and his contemporaries were more calculating than that. The (three moon) adjustment might be accounted for with the fold of time between the New Style (Gregorian) calendar new year (January 1) and the Old Style (Julian) calendar year (March 25 --- a dual benchmark still in civic use well after the Gregorian calendar was adopted by the Colonies in 1752.]

Further still, it is said that Dexter kept a Dreambook which followed the synodic/lunar calendar and that he believed the best time to launch any venture to be the ninth day after the New Moon --- nine being his lucky number. (Duly note that he often first consulted his spiritualist Jane Hooper of the Waterside, and when she passed on, Lord Tim frequently engaged Moll Pitcher of Lynn.)

[Because her powers were not adversely affected by the confluence of the Heavens, Madam Hooper came highly recommended by Timothy Dexter's astrologer when prized melons went missing from his Tracy House "garding" during a Full Moon. Madam Hooper's divination exposed the perpetrator and the melons --- initialed with Dexter's mark of T.D. --- were returned to their rightful planter. Thenafter, her powers were never questioned and Madam Hooper was always welcomed to Dexter's commodious abode --- bringing her insight to the circle of friends who met at the Tracy House or serving as Dexter's personal confidante and spiritual advisor.]

2When asked if one were an expert on Dexter, had instead referred to oneself as an "enthusiast" --- and explained that we were "old friends" and that this acquaintance grew into a loyal friendship in needful times. For one who aspires to be one of the Knowing Ones) a Dexterian doppelganger continues to add light and laughter, wit and whimsy to the ongoing conversation. Then quoting Dexter that "the sole is the thinking part" --- one had plied the wit and wisdom of another Bard from across the pond to "be sure I count myself in nothing else so happy as in a soul remembering my good friends."

[This offers the perfect segue to add that on Friday, November 26th (the Full Beaver Moon) Judy Collins was interviewed on Bill Moyer's NOW program (visit website hyperlink for interview). When asked why she thought some songs were timeless, she answered that she herself considered a necessary element to be that the lyrics be surrounded by mystery --- thus confounding the meaning, or making it more profound. The Knowing Ones have always sensed that has been Dexter's staying appeal --- be that mystery about the man or his expression (in "Pickle"). Thus, the Knowing Ones appeal to others to respect the communion of souls --- and not manufacture fatuous, forged accounts of anyone's life with fractured biographical fiction.]

3In the primary piece, Moonlight Madness, it was delightful to read about the Korpics children's interest in astronomy, encouraged by their father's pastime and passion for stargazing. This particular quote from the interview was in context of the explanation that this fascination is rather universal, cosmic and timeless: recounting that parents often remarked that "moon" was one of the first words their child had formed.

[For example, at the Afternoon of the Harvest Moon meet in 2002 --- to remark the 200th anniversary of tornado that swept through the Newburys and anticipate that Lord Tim would come home again with the Full Hunters Moon the followming month --- a father prompted his 20-month-old year daughter to repeat the first phrase she ever strung together. Each time she was asked the question: "Where is the moon?" She would reach her little hand upward and reply: "Up in the sky!"

It would follow that when Awakening the Spirit during the Afternoon of the waxing Full Hunters Moon, Pam Farren --- who had studied art in Italy --- recounted that when she had her son, she taught him the word "la luna" --- which baby Christian would repeat when seeking out the moon in the heavens --- a fascination he held to that day --- later writing Madam Hooper a note that she "was right about that bunny" in the moon.]

4One surmised that Dexter and his contemporaries would indeed use the phrase "Keep Pace with the Heavens" which was coined by Richard Saunders (Ben Franklin's alias) to describe the need to adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1752. (A copy of the text of the 1752 issue of Poor Richard's Almanac can be found online at this link without.) This phrase remains most inspirational as the Waterside people (and strains beyond) Race the Moon in the New Millennium.

5In his lifetime, Dexter would have considered the "Blue Moon" to be the third moon in a season that had four moons. Actually, defining the "Blue Moon" as the second moon in a month that has two moons (as was the case for the Once in a Blue Moon opportunity on July 31, 2004) is a fairly recent interpretation, just over a half century old --- a fact which (coincidentally) came to light during the launch the Waterside movement anew early in 1999.

In a manner of speaking, an explanation of how the term "devolved" may be framed with another twist of words of a well-worn maxim: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to believe" ~ citing the 1946 article published in "Sky and Telescope" magazine written by an amateur astronomer named J. Hugh Pruett (whose writing talents were better suited to tracing meteors than metaphors).

[When preparing an piece about Blue Moons for publication in a later "Sky and Telescope" magazine, folkorist Philip Hiscock thoroughly traced the meanings of that expression throughout history (link without to article published March 1999). Despite exhaustive research, Hiscock could not confirm any early tradition defining the Blue Moon as the second full moon in a month. A follow-up piece published in May 1999 acknowledged that "Sky and Telescope" had apparently (and inadvertently) created this newer tradition when James Hugh Pruett, the author one of their own articles published in March 1946, had misinterpreted a page of the 1937 Maine Farmers' Almanac. Thereupon, the misinformation propagated without question (read: the Knowing Ones questioning "certain knowledge") ~ then was given further credence in 1986 when the "question" and "answer" was codified in the Genus II edition of the game "Trivial Pursuit." With the media propagating the misinformation, it became an urban legend.

Upon reviewing the Maine Farmers' Almanacs as far back as 1819, Hiscock and others ascertained that (in hindsight) the term was used to mean the third Full Moon in a season which has four --- in those years that have 13 full moons. This was done in order that the Christian Ecclesiastical calendar could "Keep Pace with the Heavens" --- to quote from Poor Richard's 1752 Almanac (noted in footnote 4). Incidentally, almanacs often printed that moon in blue ink (indigo), which might also account for its reference as the "Blue Moon," something overlooked in the insight proferred by the myriad researchers. ]

Howbeit, from Comity's perspective, this new twist merely offered an intriguing "ply" with an unfolding history --- and in a nuanced import, expounded upon the need to question "certain knowledge." Thus and so, given the Blue Moon months in January and March of 1999 --- the launch of the contemporary 5-year term for the Plan in Motion in February 1999 to remark the 235th anniversary of the Waterside's establishment as the separate town of Newburyport would be termed a "Twice in a Blue Moon opportunity" to launch the Waterside movement anew, using the bywords, Motion of Comity.

[The rare phenomenon when two blue moons (using the more current definition) occur in the same year only happens once every 19 years. However, while the colloquial expression "Once in a Blue Moon" means a rare occasion, in the next twenty years there will be a total of 17 blue moons, with an almost equal number of one or the other type of blue moons occurring, as noted below.]

Hoping to adapt a new tradition to the old, the Waterside movement adopted the synodical/lunar calendar to mark progress and convey "tidings" and information flow. The Once in a Blue Opportunity was woven with the basic framework --- and using the Old Style (Julian) calendar's civil year (which commences March 25) --- an Annual "March town meeting" Forum was planned to serve as an annual benchmark. (Serving as an annual "rapport" to complement the Annual Report.)

While City Hall had (formerly and formally) associated with the Waterside movement --- at present, this is a parallel universe --- in harmony, but with a greater degree of autonomy. The Once in a Blue Moon opportunity (in a Motion of Comity with Yankee Homecoming 2004) served as the de facto annual benchmark and completed the contemporary 5-year term. Throughout the remainder of the Gregorian calendar year 2004, full moons fall on the days after Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Coincidentally next year, March 25th (the Old Style Calendar new year) falls on the Full Sap Moon and a "Blue Moon" (in the traditional, old-style definition) is new on August 5th (the Friday during Yankee Homecoming) and full on August 19th. Let's not miss these opportunities to remark history and history in the making --- for as Dexter would say, "Sum thing more Coming!"

[The traditional (old-style) blue moon, which happens when there are four full moons in a season, is reckoned according to the seasons, so it can only occur in February, May, August, or November --- about a month before the Equinox or the Solstice. It follows that two full moons in one month may actually occur in any month out of the year except for February, a month that is shorter than the lunar cycle. Using either definition of the Blue Moon, for the next twenty years there will be no blue moon of any kind in the years 2006, 2011, 2014, 2017 and 2022. (Visit this link for more information.)]

6Dexter believed in reincarnation and would often intimate that from time to time he "may come back toue see houe you all goue on" --- declaring as much in "Pickle" (in reference to a generation hence). Dexter's periodic return home again is a device used to assess where we have been, where we are and where we are going at any point in time: a benchmark. The pretense (and pretext) serve us well.

7The Knowing Ones consider "Pickle" to be an appetizer for food for thought --- noting the quote from Ben Franklin or rather "Richard Saunders" (Franklin's nom de plume when publishing "Poor Richard's Almanack") that hunger is the best pickle. Incidentally, you will find both publications on syllabuses for (college) course studies on Early American humor --- a testament to their timeless and timely words of wit and wisdom.

8This assertion about the alleged beating was never broached during the interview about Dexter's cosmology, or one would have certainly would have taken the opportunity to clarify it with the journalist [referring to the the Biographical Abstract at (direct hyperlink) to elucidate this breach of facts].

9Dexter is not the framer of a constitution or founder of an institution --- nor is the Waterside movement, in a Motion of Comity about Dexter's ideas or ideals, per se. As clearly expressed during the colloquy with the Current journalist (and stressed in a corollary exchange) Dexter (in a Motion of Comity and Absolute Balance) serves as the wondrous exponent/proponent for the movement --- and as such is the motif or motivator, not a model or ideal.

Actually, if there are any tenets that inspire the Waterside movement as an exercise of the body politic, it is the timeless agenda laid out in the Waterside people's petition to form the Waterside Third Parish of Newbury as the separate town of Newburyport in 1764: a Plan in Motion for generations to follow.

Thus Timothy Dexter (having settled in the Waterside community within the first 5-year term of the Plan in Motion) represents a collective of the active citizenry, rife with ideas and ideals --- merely attempting to dip his oar in the unending conversation. Being one of the Knowing Ones, Lord Tim is wont to ask good questions and then question the answer --- urging his fellow citizens to do the same: For the representatives of The Third Estate in this Federal experiment know not all the answers --- nor all the questions.

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