Magic Moon

Green corn and smoked sturgeon, anyone?


OK. Fair enough. If it doesn’t sound like standard fare, it probably shouldn’t. Which isn’t to say it was always meaningless in these parts, thus the name of the new August moon, which began Sunday in the midnight sky. Called the Sturgeon or Green Corn Moon, it carried much significance when our indigenous people lived by what is now referred to in literary circles as “The Old Ways.” That just happens to be the title of a charming little 1977 Gary Snyder book of essays well worth reading and heeding. If you can find this California poet/new ecologists’s tiny little treasure in hardcover for a reasonable price, buy it. Then count your blessings. The heavens must smile upon you to stumble upon such a discovery.

Actually, the Sturgeon Moon fits “The Old Ways” profile much better than green corn, because old ways suggest a hunting/gathering lifestyle, not the more sedentary horticultural village life. Snyder strongly believes that the human mind, body and soul were built for hunting and gathering, not tending crops, which ultimately brought out “civilization” and metropolises and their associated pestilence and organized religions, all of the above dizzily spinning mankind into new directions. In Snyder’s way of thinking, the spearing of caribou in steep, narrow, ravines or sturgeon by torchlight in summer river shallows beats tending a “three sisters” crop of complementary corn, squash and beans any day of the week.

Connecticut River sturgeon and their cousins in other ecosystems have been a personal fascination for several years due mainly to scanty documentation explaining why the large migratory fish was important to ancient local tribes. You hear plenty about Atlantic salmon, game fish for kings, and American shad, a prolific New World spring migrant worthy of harvest from the beginning of the New England colonial period. Yet only sparse mention of Atlantic sturgeon, a fish that can grow from seven to 12 feet long, providing savory meat and roe for human sustenance.

Yeah, yeah, I know most of the local chatter about sturgeon these days concerns the endangered shortnose species, which only confuses discussion of Atlantic sturgeon. And, yes, perhaps native people did value the shortnose species in their annual hunter/gatherer larders. Still, giant Atlantics and several landlocked cousins found in lakes were more desirable to fish harvesters. Because the large sturgeons of the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain were easiest to catch in August, that month’s moon adopted the fish’s name among tribes there.

Focused as I have been in recent years on Native American ethnology, anthropology, archaeology and literature — that is oral history told in song and verse and recorded by ethnologists and linguists before the Native languages in which they were recited became extinct  — I have searched for non-culinary uses for or tales of sturgeon. Truth be told, the references are few, but there are two that most interest me, both suggesting use of some internal substance for glue or gum used for everyday repairs and/or to seal canoe seams and secures their ribs.

One of the references came from James Willard Schultz, who married into the Blackfoot tribe and chronicled upper Great Plains Indian life in several 19th and early 20th century volumes. The other came from Brian Swann’s coast-to-coast anthology of Indian folklore, “Algonquian Spirit: Contemporary Translations of the Algonquian Literatures of North America,” book three of his comprehensive trilogy devoted to Native American literature. In a Cree narrative he presents from the Great Lakes region, there exists a reference to fetching sturgeon for a canoe job requiring gum and glue.

I can’t imagine that the Pioneer Valley’s so-called “River Indians,” all of them Eastern Algonquians who fished anadromous-fish runs at the falls of Enfield, Conn, South Hadley, Turners Falls and Vernon, Vt., didn’t also used this bodily sturgeon fluid or gel for all-purpose gums and glues. And, yes, of course the giant Connecticut River fish were also highly valued valued for their meat and roe. Indians wasted little.

Told of sturgeon as a glue source, an archaeologist friend speculated that the sticky substance may have been extracted or decocted from the fishes’ cartilaginous skeletons, most likely the backbone. Because of their soft-tissue composition, skeletal surgeon remains quickly vanish from the archaeological record. The lone archaeological trace of this prehistoric fish is rugged, exterior scutes, which appear on the fish’s body in five exterior rows of triangular, bony, scale-like armor. So hard and indestructible were these rigid medieval armor plates that those from large sturgeon are said to have been employed as scrapers and knives in some indigenous tool kits.

As for green corn, well, a different context altogether. Most Indian cultures that grew corn saluted the mid-summer ripening season with green-corn ceremony and celebration. These seasonal galas would have included dancing, feasting, fasting, ritual and storytelling. According to Wikipedia, “Historically, (green-corn ceremony) involved a first-fruits rite in which the community would sacrifice the first of the green corn to ensure the rest of the crop would be successful.” This rite was observed here in the valley by indigenous people, all members of corn cultures by the time Europeans set foot in the Connecticut Valley in the early seventeenth century.

Oh well, that’s about all I have this week. … Just a little something to think about as the Sturgeon or Green Corn Moon builds in the midnight sky. Come Aug. 7 at 2:11 a.m., it’ll bloom to its full celestial splendor, casting soft silver light over earth and sky, slate roofs illuminated in the softest of grays.

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