Balance at the start of the New Year – ZIISSBAAKDOKE GIIZAS – The Ojibwa Sugar Moon

Balance in the New Year – What is the Vernal Equinox?

Most traditional calendars have 13 months. You may be asking “how?” there are 12 months in a year! And that is true for the Gregorian and Julien Calendars, solar calendars devised by Roman popes and emperors. Keeping perfect time is a challenge. The solar and lunar cycles do not perfectly coincide and the time periods in which heavenly spheres rotate about each other do not fall into even and perfectly divisible increments. Each lunar cycle is 29.5 days. The solar year is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. Finding balance is a challenge sometimes.

No matter how you track time over the course of a year – rotation of the sun, or cycles of the moon – or both – you need to add an adjustment into your calendar. Solar calendars have a leap year in which a day is added about every four years. Lunar calendars add an extra month every three years (half days add up quickly). The beauty in either system is the option of having either an extra day, or a full month, in which to celebrate outside of ordinary time. Extra months, extra days, can be seen as a temporospatial rift, a time when anything is either allowed or considered possible.

As of this writing, it is the Vernal Equinox – the first day of spring – the time when the day is approximately equal in length to the night. On this day, light, and the solar energy it brings, begin to vanquish the power of the cold dark night that has held the northern hemisphere in its cold limiting grasp. Life begins to win over death on this day. On this day, the forces are balanced. Tomorrow we will have more sun than darkness. That is why this is the New Year. This is the day life starts winning again.

Sugar Moon – The Balance Moon

Balance is the message in ZIISSBAAKDOKE GIIZAS – the Sugar Moon of the Anishinaabeg people who lived (live still) in the Great Lakes region where I was born and learned the cycles of the natural world. You may know the Anishinaabeg by the other names of the people this group represents: Ojibwe, Algonquin, Potawatami, Oji-Cree and Mississaugas.

The word Anishinaabeg translates to “people from whence lowered.” Another definition refers to “the good humans,” meaning those who are on the right road or path given to them by the Creator Gichi-Manidoo, or Great Spirit. The Ojibwe historian, linguist, and author Basil Johnston wrote that its literal translation is “Beings Made Out of Nothing” or “Spontaneous Beings,” since the Anishinaabeg were created by divine breath

The Anishinaabeg have a 13 month (moonth) lunar calendar. If it is purely lunar with an extra month added every three years, I cannot say, as I do not know. I am learning about these people and their calendar. And I am doing so because their calendar is based upon the natural cycles of the place in which I was born and learned about the world. I have tapped spiles into maple trees during the sugar moon to gather sap and make syrup and sugar. Just like the Anishinaabeg had, in the same land, for millennia past. The next moon, sucker moon, when the red horse sucker comes back into the creeks to spawn, I begin to fish again. In the flower moon I gather rose blossoms to flavor my honey wine. In raspberry moon I gorge myself on wild berries every chance I get. The Anishinaabe have lessons about life embedded into their calendar from the world around them. I want to learn these lessons too.

The sugar moon – ZIISSBAAKDOKE GIIZAS – is about gathering maple sap to restore balance after a winter of eating heavy stored foods such as smoked and dried meats and fish, dried fruits, acorn bread, and other calorie dense staple foods that can be stored into the winter. Without ships to bring them salad greens grown in Mexico and California, they had to eat what was available. And that meant heavy processed food during the months when snow covered the ground. The maple provides the first light, fresh and abundant nutrition source from a plant after a long winter.

Maple sap is gathered by placing spiles into the maple tree as the sap begins to flow heavily in early spring – during the sugar moon.

Photo credit: LadyDragonflyCC – >;< via / CC BY

You might think it’s just sugar water. But maple sap has a strong mineral and nutrient profile that makes it a valuable medicine for bone strength, immune function, blood pressure and gastric ulcers.

Maple sap improves osteoporosis-like symptoms

“Gorosoe” translates to “the tree that is good for the bones.”  Sure, the name sounds promising, but is there any truth to it?

For starters, sap from Acer mono has been shown to contain an impressive mineral analysis, including 16 times the potassium, 37 times the calcium, and 3.9 times the magnesium contents of spring water.  All 3 of these minerals are essential for optimal bone health.

To test the bone-supporting effects of maple sap on biological systems, researchers carried out experiments where they put mice on low-calcium diets and supplemented them with various concentrations of A. mono sap (1).  Mice who were supplemented with both 50% and 100% maple sap concentrations retained normal serum calcium levels, compared to the lower serum calcium levels of mice fed spring water only and 25% maple sap.

Additionally, in the spring water-fed and 25% maple sap-fed groups, thigh bone density and length were significantly reduced, compared to the mice fed higher concentrations of maple sap.  The researchers concluded that 50% sap solution could mitigate osteoporosis-like symptoms induced by a low-calcium diet, and they attributed its mechanism to calcium ion absorption.

Life Lessons from the Sugar Moon

The lesson from sugar moon is that having balance in our lives is very sweet indeed. It is important to recognize too that before sugar moon was bear moon, when we honour the vision quest that began in the fall. During this time, we discover how to see beyond reality and to communicate through energy rather than sound – scientists have found through monitoring the physiology of hibernating bears that they are always aware of their surrounding, even when sleeping. Their heart rates increase as researchers approach the den, even when they are as silent as possible.

This bear moon also gives us a special teaching about the birth of bear cubs. In February, there is one morning when there is a heavy fog in the air and this is the day that the mother bear, while still sleeping, gives birth to her cubs. The young bears begin developing balance themselves during this sugar moon, just as the men and women gathering sweet sap from maple trees are recovering balance in their own lives. A more thorough exploration of the lessons of bear moon is something I will save for a later date. But for now it’s important for us to recognize where we just were before arriving at sugar moon, before this new year, with new beginnings.

Life is cyclic and successive. We tend to think of the earth as rotating about a stable sun in a perfect ellipse. But the fact is that all three of us – sun, moon and earth – are traveling through space at 12 miles per second. We are never in the same place twice. These lunar and solar cycles we experience are spirals moving forward. And that is the nature of these months and seasons we speak of. We carry forward their lessons into the next month, into the next solar cycle. We grow as we experience the cycles of time.

In ecology we call this succession. An ecosystem formed by the scouring of a glacier is near barren of nutrients. But life is power, and will establish itself with only the smallest of footholds. And as the sun provides more energy during part of the year it will advance itself. As the darkness of winter pulls the energy away, that life will be recycled, its nutrients providing the prima materia for the next round of succession, until a glacial valley and moraine becomes a thick climax forest of towering oaks and pines. All of us are solar powered. All of us go through these same cycles of succession.

These processes are abstracted out through the evolution of culture and technology by the prefrontal cortex of modern man. We change the world as we adapt to it through our use of technology. And in turn we advance and adapt to those technologies. Unchecked by principles of nature, the power of human intellect can be directed in ways that harm us, throw us out of balance, and require us to assess where we have been and where we want to be in the future. This sugar moon is a good time for us to begin the work of restoring balance between our relationships to technology and nature.

No matter how much “culture” we develop –  in this metaphorical sugar moon we are bear cubs, born into the new year – out of balance still from all we learned in the year prior. Those lessons are not yet fully integrated. They haven’t matured into power yet. But this moonth – the sugar moon – we begin to balance out all those lessons learned by mind and body, and carry them forward with the power as the energy of the sun begins to dominate the 24 hour cycle.

Action Steps:

1 – Consider the balance in all your actions throughout this month. How are you balancing your energy expenditure relative to what is available? In the winter there isn’t quite as much as there will be now and for the next six months. This is a time of growth. Perhaps it is time to harvest the energy as it becomes available to stoke the fires of creation.

2 – Consider where you have been. Have you been following the natural cycles? Were you resting and reflecting during the previous months when the energy for growth wasn’t so available? Were you living your winter – or your life for that matter – like it is an eternal summer? running yourself ragged into burnout? If so – balance in this season for you might mean taking a step back, reflecting on the lessons of the past year, and turning the fire down a bit, using the energy now available to heal instead of grow.

3 – Respect where you are in your individual cycles. If you have been out of sync with nature, or not even considering it at all, this is the time to apply the energy available to restoring balance – to healing yourself. You cannot grow without a stable base. A house built upon the sand will fall and wash away. Technology comes and goes. Learning about the cycles of the natural world and finding ways to align your efforts with them is time proven and tested through thousands of generations of human experience and evolution. Nature is the best teacher, for all of us.

Photo credit for main photo of maple buds: Muffet via Visualhunt / CC BY


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