Sunday, March 04, 2007

Lunar Eclipse, Sir Isaac Newton and Biodynamic Gardening

Thank goodness for the recent cold snap and clear skies overnight. This meant that last night's lunar eclipse was clearly visible, from about 21.00hr to 22.30hr. During a lunar eclipse, the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon, blocking the Sun’s light. We see the Earth’s shadow creep across the surface of the Moon. Lunar eclipses are not as spectacular as Solar eclipses, when day turns to night. However, they last for much longer, and can be seen from any part of the Earth’s surface where the Moon is above the horizon.

Full Moons occur when the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the Earth - so Lunar eclipses can only happen when the Moon is full. It would seem natural for a lunar eclipse to happen at each full Moon. But this isn't the case. The Moon's orbit is tilted by about 5 degrees to the path of the Earth's orbit around the Sun. During most months the Moon will pass above or below the Earth's shadow and no eclipse will occur. So last night's full moon and lunar eclipse was worth waiting for, actually it was the first lunar eclipse I've witnessed. And I fully expect corrections from my favourite NASA guy via email!

So on to biodynamic gardening. This term describes a whole system approach to organic gardening based upon the writings of Rudolf Steiner in the twenties. He believed that the world must be seen as a single organism, where everything is related. Nothing new there then, to those of us with a faith in the Creator. Steiner believed that the burgeoning developments in the chemical industries during the first quarter of the last century, and advancements made in the manufacture and widespread use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides had a detrimental effect on the quality of crops, not just because of the bio-chemical properties involved, but also due to spiritual shortcomings in the whole chemical approach to farming. Sounds familiar?

But planting by the phases of the moon? Now that is a step too far in the incredulity stakes. Or so I thought until it appeared as a project by one of the first-year RHS students, Thea Pitcher, featured in Friday night's edition of A New Year at Kew. Thea planted a vegetable patch according to the phases of the moon, which she hoped will increase productivity and plant and soil health. More on this in next week's programme.
Planting by the phases of the moon is an idea as old as agriculture, and whilst it appears to be based on superstitions best left in the ancient world, it's actually based on the scientific principles set out by the greatest scientist of all, Sir Isaac Newton.
In 1687 Newton published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) commonly known as the Principia. In Book I of the Principia he states the foundations of the science of mechanics, developing upon them the mathematics of orbital motion round centres of force. Newton identified gravitation as the fundamental force controlling the motions of the celestial bodies.
The foundation upon which biodynamic gardening rests is that Earth is in a large gravitational field, influenced by both the Sun and Moon. The tides are highest at the time of the new and the full Moon, when Sun and Moon are lined up with Earth. Just as the Moon pulls the tides in the oceans, it also pulls upon the subtle bodies of water, causing moisture to rise in the Earth, which encourages growth. The highest amount of moisture is in the soil at this time, and seeds will absorb the most water at the time of the full Moon.
Whilst I'm not really convinced by this, I shall experiment this season in the spirit of Newton, for as Alexander Pope wrote,
"Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said "Let Newton be" and all was light."

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