Merrimack River Current

Moonlight Madness
By Joel Beck and Dinah Cardin
Friday, November 5, 2004

There's no intelligent life on Saturn - and not just because its temperatures tend to dip more than 300 degrees below zero and the atmosphere is made up mostly of helium and liquid hydrogen.

OK, mostly because of that.

What could make it really uncomfortable for Saturn's inhabitants is the extreme lunar force of more than 30 spheroid satellites circling the planet. Here on Earth, one moon is enough to deal with. There's a long history of anecdotal evidence documenting the effects of our moon's activity - specifically full moons -on human behavior.

Having one solitary moon rather than Saturn's 30-plus doesn't mean we aren't unphased by the monthly lunar phases. Going back to ancient times, it was believed that a full moon brought out the worst in people. It has spawned the word "lunatic," from the Latin "luna," meaning "moon" and "lunaticus," for "touched by the moon."

Legend and lore blames the moon for causing madness and alternately credits it for curing disease. Depending on your perspective, it can illuminate the world for two lovers or light the path to mischief. Some have believed a rare lunar eclipse could help win a ball game.

At this time of year, when the harvest moon climbs above the horizon and the sun leaves us earlier and earlier in the afternoon, our thoughts can turn to that storied circle of Swiss cheese that dominates the starry sky.

Florence Gaia waxes poetic when speaking about the moon being something spiritual that is deeply a part of our essence. She goes so far as to say the moon enlarges our spirit when gazed upon. The Plum Island resident has some experience to back up her thinking. She is a nurse who has worked with Native American teachers, lived in tee-pees in Montana, and communes and drums under a full moon.

"It puts some perspective on our problems to have those moments of awe, peace, wonder and mystery," she says. "We kind of get a better perspective of what we need to take seriously and what we need to let go of. Any time we're focusing on the power of the moon or tides, it gives us some rest to our human spirit."

Many would say, after years of Red Sox consternation, fans now can rest their spirits. Perhaps it was the wink of the moon that helped out the team that night, as the game played half a continent away.

If the moon has no role in strange circumstances, then how do you explain the turn of events in October on the night of a full hunter moon that experienced a rare full eclipse? That night, the formerly "cursed" Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years in the first championship baseball game ever played on the night of a full moon.

Something had to be going on that night, says Lenny Pearl, a bartender at Molly's Pub in Newburyport, because the winning pitch of the World Series seemed to coincide with the exact moment the moon was fully eclipsed.

"It was very mystical," he says.

Pearl and the rest of the pub staff and regulars were not only watching the game - they were out in the back, watching the eclipse through the cook's telescope.

"The surface of the moon was this brown, reddish color. It was gorgeous," says Steve Korpics, an amateur astronomer for the last decade.

In the restaurant business, people always joke about the full moon bringing in rowdy customers, Korpics says.

"It all depends on what you want to believe in. I think people who go out to brunch act a lot weirder than people who come out during a full moon. It's really hard to look at that and not be awestruck by it.

"To me, it has a calming effect and is just so inspiring. Especially during the fall, you get some gorgeous moon rises and that golden color. People sort of ask 'where did that come from?' It's so big on the horizon. People stop and notice nature's beauty, and that's a good thing," he says.

Korpics keeps his telescope in the back of his car. The advantage to working nights is that he can take it out to dark places after work. He is teaching his two young children to have the same appreciation.

Over on Middle Street at The Grog, bartender Ed Dufault says any omen is a good one when the Sox are in the World Series. But as far as the moon affecting people's behavior - he doesn't buy it.

"People always act freaky here, so it's hard to tell," he says.

Howl at the moon

People aren't the only animals in tune with the cycles of the moon. Bill Gette, of the Massachusetts Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center on Plum Island, says migrating birds often travel at night when weather conditions are calmer, and they frequently fly by the light of a full moon that illuminates the ground below, helping them to follow landmarks.

Experienced birders watch and wait on Plum Island's wildlife refuge to catch a glimpse of geese and swans in flight against the bright, fall moonlight.

"Last night was extraordinary," Gette says of a recent evening. "A full moon rising in the fall is just one of those spectacles. You don't have to travel very far to see a natural spectacle, and seeing the moon rise over the Merrimac River is one of those for me."

If the moon does indeed possess some kind of unexplainable cosmic energy, it evidently is experienced by all members of the animal kingdom. Just ask Kevin Ackert, president of the North Shore Amateur Astronomy Club.

"I know my cat is affected by it," Ackert writes in an e-mail. "She seems to become more feral during the full moon period."

Anne Kay, a counseling spiritual astrologer from Lynn, says her cat also runs around, crazed by the intensity of a full moon.

Kay conducts full moon intentional ritual ceremonies to help people harness the moon's energy. She tells them to use its power to make things happen.

"From the new moon, the idea is to plant seeds for what you want in the coming months," she says.

With more than 30 years experience in astrology, Darrell Martini, a renowned astrologer from Saugus, has yet to meet a bartender, hairdresser, firefighter, police officer or hospital employee who won't swear on their lives that full moons really do muddle up things.

Police officers often comment on the full moon causing trouble. Some claim it's merely a figure of speech, while others, like Amesbury Police Sgt. Mark Gagnon, say the full moon has contributed to busy police logs in years past.

"At one time I probably bought into it - the moon bringing out the crazies," he says. "It seemed like it years ago but now there's no correlation."

However, Newburyport Police Lt. Robert Gagnon thinks a connection remains.

"If a lot of strange calls come in on a particular night, I look up and it's usually a full moon or a new moon. A new moon has its effects too, I think."

Look at some North Shore police logs from full-moon nights in past years.

What about the woman in Beverly who called the police on her son on the night of a September full moon? According to the Beverly police log, the boy was driving his mother crazy by unplugging the telephone.

On the night of a July full moon, Saugus police records show that a disoriented man was walking on Ballard Street with a photo of Jesus attached to his face.

And only last June's full moon could explain why two men were spotted running on the median strip on Route 1 in Saugus. The men later said they were just trying to chase some ducklings out of traffic.

Last week, as Halloween approached, Amanda Connolly of Amesbury Country Day School good-naturedly thought the full moon could be contributing to making her preschool kids act a bit crazy. Or not.

But on a more serious note, Gaia thinks people toward the end of their lives may be more connected to the moon. Recalling when she worked in a nursing home, Gaia says her patients tended to be more agitated and "acted up" under a full moon. She now works in a psychiatric hospital and wonders how patients would react to quiet time under the night sky.

"Something happens when you do that," she says. "To lay out under the stars and open your eyes occasionally, it gives you a sense of peace and quiet. We are so often overwhelmed by our thoughts and feelings. To see constellations, to hear the sounds of the night, to hear another animal close by snorting because he senses your presence. It will change you for the rest of your life. You hunger for it, once you've gotten over your fears. You just have a hunger for it."

Gaia eventually wants to lead wilderness retreats, where she can expose people to the brightest moonlight piercing an otherwise dark landscape.

Beam me up

"Oh, I'm going to sound weird," says Marblehead artist Robin Samiljan just before she explains why she's been painting each month's full moon for the better part of the last year.

"Once I started paying attention to the moon, I felt energy," Samiljan says. "When there's a full moon, I really feel a cosmic energy. This energy is something that we, as individuals, if we are open to the possibilities, can have float right through us. It's up to you if you want to pay attention to it."

But believe it or not, Ackert of the North Shore Amateur Astronomy Club, says most astronomers don't look forward to a full moon, because it generally ruins the night sky for viewing other stars or constellations. Moreover, there's a pretty substantial gap between astronomy and astrology, and Ackert suggests that most astronomers pay little attention to anything out of the ordinary that happens during a full moon.

During the past several full moons, more people seemed to be in search of some relief from stress, says Melissa Comeau O'Brien of Massage Only in Newburyport.

As she flips through her business' book, she notices that Aug. 30, Sept. 28 and Oct. 28 were very busy days for massages. That leads her to speculate that clients are more aware of their health because of their connection with nature when the moon is full. She optimistically anticipates the same will be true at the end of November.

The battle of the sexes carries over to this arena. Women and their bodies are traditionally more in tune with the moon than are men.

"It's a time when we have a little more access to our emotional levels," says Grace Ramsey Coolidge, a psychotherapist energy worker in Newburyport. "In our culture, we're cut off from the heart center and what they call in the East, the gut center. Some say it's a time of breakthrough. Women tend to go into cycles more in the full moon, and there are more [birth] deliveries. It has a pull effect that you can say pulls emotions up and pulls babies out."

Still unphased

Convincing arguments? Scientifically, nothing backs up any of this. Brian Lankshear, of Merrimack College's physics department, says there is no reasonable explanation to link people's behavior to phases of the moon.

"People act funny enough without the moon interfering," he says. "There is a lot of misinformation and silliness out there. I don't think there's any correlation between physics and werewolves and howling at the moon. It moves the tides, and if you're a sailor, you might get excited. The gravity of a big truck parked nearby has as much gravity as a full moon."

A blue moon simply means two full moons in the same month. It's a coincidence of the calendar and the moon, which are normally about 28 days apart, says Lankshear, so there's "nothing too mystical or weird there."

He still wonders whether some day a connection will be found.

"Our ancestors were closely tied to natural things. The moon rising over the ocean certainly has an emotional effect. They reckon if the moon weren't there, we wouldn't be here," Lankshear says. This is because our moon stabilizes our planet. Mars, on the other hand, lacks a big enough moon to stabilize its axial tilt, which accounts for its inability to support human life.

While it may be convenient - and to some, even logical - to target the full moon as an easy explanation for any number of strange events, Sky and Telescope magazine editor Kelly Beatty says it just doesn't add up.

He says the human mind tends to work in such a way that most people are more willing to accept illogical explanations than rational ones. After all, why else would a show like "The X-Files" have such a devoted audience?

"We see this on television all the time," Beatty says. "Something weird happens out in the countryside and, in some people's minds, it's just as plausible to blame it on aliens as it is to some natural event."

There is also no psychological explanation for people's reactions to the moon.

"Anecdotally, yes, empirically, no," is the explanation by John Malis of Joppa Counseling in Newburyport.

He does hear more complaints about sleep disturbance when the moon is full, and that's when his patients complain of anxiety and irritability. But Malis says it doesn't amount to something he could put into a scientific study.

"It isn't like when the moon is full 'oooh watch out for your patients.' It's usually not that pronounced," he says. "People are looking for different homeopathic medications and different explanations for why things happen, so things like the phases of the moon are grist for the mill. Sometimes people make reference to it but more in a matter of fact way."

Malis does credit moonlight for its beneficial effect on those suffering from seasonal affective disorder, which is comforting when you consider most 9-to-5 workers are going to see more moonlight than sunlight this winter.

Perhaps most importantly, "the moon reflects back at us a quality within our own human spirit," Gaia says, "whatever that fascination, whatever that enchantment is. It may not even be a quality we can name.

"If we can stop projecting for a moment and experience that this fascination, this beauty, is within me, is my spirit, in a quiet and humble way ... if we can have a quiet moment of peace and serenity," Gaia says, "it can be very healing."

To see the moon

Salem State College Observatory
Meier Hall
Route 114, Salem
(978) 542-6452
Monday evening, weather permitting, September into May. Closed June - August.

Merrimack College Observatory
Science, Engineering and Technology Building
Route 114, Andover
(978) 837-5011

Open every clear Wednesday and third Thursday of the month for free public viewing. Dusk till 10 p.m., weather permitting. 20-inch telescope. Cancelled if overcast or rainy.

E-mail reporter Joel Beck at and Dinah Cardin at

(This article replicated online with permission of the Merrimack River Current.)
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