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BUTTERFLIES: SYMBOLS OF HOPE

September 19, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those who are in need. We have decided to continue our support to the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to St. Luke’s Free Clinic 162 N Dean St, Spartanburg, SC 29302 – (864) 542-2273.

Last summer, our daughter Betsy, her husband Jay, and their two young daughters joined us in our family home. When they moved in, Clare and I welcomed them with open arms. It is a part of a long-range plan to help us navigate life.  Clare and I are officially elderly people with diminished capabilities. We are just not as sharp and as spry as we once were.

Little did we know that our new arrangement would be as timely as it has been. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited us all more than we could have anticipated. Jay is a nurse who works on the COVID-19 unit at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center. He is our resident superhero, serving with many others on the front line of the battle with this dread disease.   

One of the joys of our arrangement is the time we have with our granddaughters. While Clare and I miss being with our other grandchildren, the two who live with us bring us great joy every day. One morning this week I was sitting on the screened back porch with the girls when we noticed a pair of large tiger swallowtail butterflies fluttering from purple cone flowers to orange zinnias to pink phlox. They seemed to be dancing as if they were performing a ballet. The bright yellow wings of the butterflies catching the sunlight added a touch of even more beauty to the flowers.

In the late summer and early fall days of September and October, something happens in our garden that is nothing short of amazing. The miracle of metamorphosis occurred yet again this year in our backyard.  It’s the season for caterpillars and for butterflies. By late summer, our garden is aflutter with butterflies of all varieties. Once they take wing, they are drawn to flowering plants that provide a feast of nectar.

Creating a butterfly garden requires a little planning and some maintenance. And it is well worth the effort. Among the favorites of butterflies are ageratum, aster, butterfly bush, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, catmint, coneflower, coreopsis, cosmos, goldenrods, honeysuckle, hyssop, lantana, marigold, phlox, salvia, sedum, verbena, yarrow, and zinnia.

Butterflies are difficult to count because they are constantly on the move.  One sunny afternoon last week, I went to the mailbox. I paused to look at the lantana that anchors our front flower bed.  There were no fewer than thirty butterflies on, above, and around the bush.  There were several varieties including majestic monarchs, deep orange fritillaries, and an American painted lady.  The lantana in full bloom, attended by a bevy of flittering guests, created quite a display.

There are literally millions of species in the biological order Lepidoptera. Every one of them has a larval stage we know best as caterpillars. There are both Jekyll and Hyde varieties, that is to say, some are malevolent while others are benevolent.  

In my backyard, I have a volunteer sunflower, now taller than I.  It sprang up when a sunflower seed escaped a birdfeeder and landed in a flowerbed. Out of curiosity I decided to let it grow.  Recently, I have noticed that several of the leaves have been chewed to a pulp.  I have yet to see the caterpillar that is doing the damage.  I imagine his eating binge occurs after dark.

Caterpillars have been rightly called eating machines.  They can devour the foliage of plants seemingly overnight.  Some cause great destruction and do millions of dollars in damage to agricultural crops each year. 

The boll weevil has wreaked havoc in cotton crops across the South. Armyworms attack cotton and soybean crops.

Every vegetable gardener knows to be on the lookout for cabbage worms and tomato hornworms. Earlier this summer I noticed a webbed tent, the characteristic abode of tent caterpillars, on the branch of a pecan tree.

Some caterpillars are desirable. Fishermen know that the delicate purple blossoms of the catalpa tree attract Sphinx moths that lay eggs on the underside of the large green leaves.  When the eggs hatch, catalpa worms start eating the leaves of their host plant.  Bream fishermen treasure these tiny worms because bluegills and shellcrackers consider them to be such a delicacy.

Other caterpillars are raised because of their economic importance.  The silk worm is perhaps the best example.  The minute threads produced by the silk worms are used to make valuable cloth that can be fashioned into fine garments. Most of my old neckties were made from the secretion of caterpillars.

In my garden, I have planted bronze fennel.  With their lacy leaves the dark green plants make a nice backdrop.  The fragrance reminds me of licorice.   I have fennel in my garden because it is a favorite host plant for a particular kind of caterpillar, the larvae of the swallowtail butterfly, our early morning visitor. 

Near the back of our property, grows a patch of wild flowers.  There is some goldenrod, but more importantly, there is milkweed.  The orange blossoms of the milkweed plant attract monarch butterflies.  They lay their eggs on the leaves. The larvae eventually become butterflies. These orange and black beauties are migratory. The majestic insects fly 3000 miles each fall to winter in the high mountains of central Mexico. In the spring they wing their way back to North America. 

All butterflies begin life as caterpillars.  After a time of chewing on leaves, they hang upside down and enfold themselves in the silken case they spin.  In this chrysalis stage, they resemble a dead leaf until the moment comes when they emerge from their cocoon.  Spreading their newly formed wings they fly away, gloriously transformed. 

This metamorphosis has made butterflies a reminder of new life.  They are beautiful symbols of hope.  Sometimes butterflies are released at weddings, just as the bride and groom are pronounced husband and wife, to mark the beginning of their new life together.  Early Christians saw in the butterfly an apt symbol for the resurrection. This weary world needs as much hope as we can find. Butterflies are gentle blessings, tender mercies from a divine creative hand.

I’ll never forget the funeral service for a woman who loved butterflies.  She had decorated her home with a butterfly theme.  She tended a special garden in her backyard designed to attract her flying flowers. 

After her death following an extended illness, it was only natural at her memorial to emphasize her enjoyment of butterflies.  Flower arrangements sent by friends and family members included silk butterflies. 

At the cemetery on a mountainside in Western North Carolina, the crowning touch to her service came as a complete surprise.  As I finished reading the scripture, a monarch butterfly fluttered into the funeral tent and descended upon the Bible I held in my hands.  The tiny orange and black creature perched like a bookmark between the open pages.  For a few silent seconds we marveled in amazement. The choreography was beyond anything I could have planned.

Some years ago, I sat with a man who was dying of lung cancer. We were in his backyard next to his butterfly garden. The afternoon was pleasant. The air was still. The garden was alive with swallowtails, monarchs, buckeyes, two or three spicebush, and one mourning cloak.  All sipped nectar from the array of blooms.

We sat in silence for a time before he spoke.

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

 “Yes,” I agreed. “You know the butterfly is a symbol of resurrection.”

  After a long pause, he said, “No wonder I enjoy them so much.”

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

HOW ABOUT THEM APPLES?

September 12, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those who are in need. We have decided to continue our support to the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week would you please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Mobile Meals of Spartanburg, 419 E Main St., Spartanburg, SC 29302 – (864) 573-7684?

Clare and I live in the home built by my grandfather in 1937, just after the Great Depression. Soon after Mammy and Pappy moved here, they planted an apple tree in the backyard near the railroad track. By the time I was old enough to climb the tree, the branches bore delicious apples every fall. The apples from that tree were not bright red, market pretty. In fact, I doubt that many other children would have been interested in the knotty yellow fruit with brown splotches. But I knew what would happen to the ones I picked. Mammy would make the best lattice-top apple pie the world has ever known. I am sure there will be apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream served in heaven.

 Before the American Revolution, William Mills planted fruit trees and became the first apple grower in Henderson County, North Carolina.  In 1782, Asa and Samuel Edney married the Mills daughters. The Edney brothers were among the early settlers in the community east of Hendersonville that bears their name. Edneyville was soon known as the core of the North Carolina apple industry.

The tree in the backyard was gone before our family moved into the old home place in August 1980.

In the fall, Clare and I enjoy driving to the Blue Ridge Mountains to buy apples. At our favorite roadside stand, we have found up to thirty different varieties. The fruit ranges in color from deep burgundy to red to green to yellow. Beautiful even to a color-blind man! We have found dessert apples and baking apples, apples tart and apples sweet.

Each year in early September, the town of Hendersonville hosts the North Carolina Apple Festival. The good folks of Saluda, just a few miles to the south, hold their own celebration. In the mountains of North Carolina, the expression “Let’s talk about apples” means, “Let’s forget about our troubles and think about something pleasant.”       

The ancestor of our domestic apple is native to the mountains of Central Asia. The largest city in Kazakhstan located in the region where apples are thought to have originated is called Alma-Ata, or Father of the Apple. Descendants of the original wild apple trees are still found in the mountains along the border between China and the former Soviet Union.

The apple tree was perhaps the earliest tree to be cultivated. Apples have been an essential food in many parts of the world. Apples can be stored for months while still retaining much of their nutritional value and flavor.

There are more than 7,500 known varieties of apples. The delicious fruit can only be grown in temperate climates. The trees will not flower without sufficiently cool weather.

Many old cultivars have excellent flavor, often better than most modern varieties. These old-fashioned apples are still grown by home gardeners and farmers. Their conservation efforts continue the tradition of John Chapman, an American pioneer. For more than fifty years, he roamed the Midwest. He earned his nickname, Johnny Appleseed, by planting apple trees across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Apples as a fruit or as a symbol are everywhere. They have played an important role in science and medicine. Sir Isaac Newton, upon witnessing an apple fall from its tree, was inspired to conclude that a similar universal gravitation attracted the moon toward the Earth as well.

A leader in the development of cyber technology, Apple Computers, adopted the apple as a logo for their company.

An old proverb attests to the health benefits of the fruit: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Research suggests that apples may reduce the risk of colon cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer. Like many fruits, apples contain vitamin C, as well as a host of other antioxidant compounds. They may also assist with heart health, weight loss, and cholesterol control. The chemicals in apples may protect us from the brain damage that results in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Clare and I both have fond memories of our grandfathers peeling an apple with a pocketknife. The skill was to shave a thin layer of apple skin in a long, continuous curved strip without breaking it. It is a feat that I have attempted on the back porch with my own grandchildren. I find it amazing that the curls of an apple peel can entertain children. Once the trick is completed, the children enjoy eating the peeling. Then I slice the apple into wedges, and we eat those together.

“Let’s talk about apples,” may be the way southern mountain folk try to avoid discussing troubles, but in history and in myth, apples have often been at the center of trouble.

Though the forbidden fruit mentioned in the book of Genesis is not identified, popular tradition has held that it was with an apple that Eve coaxed Adam to disobey the Almighty. As a result, the apple became a symbol of temptation.

The larynx in the human throat is called the Adam’s apple. The origin of the name came from the Bible story and the notion that it was a chunk of the forbidden fruit sticking in the throat of Adam.

Swiss folklore holds that William Tell courageously used his crossbow to shoot an apple from his son’s head, defying a tyrannical ruler and bringing freedom to his people.

Snow White, the fairy-tale princess, slept in a deep coma induced by a poisoned apple, a gift from her wicked stepmother.

On the other hand, the apple has been identified as a symbol of love and affection. Venus is often depicted holding an apple.

In the legend of King Arthur, the mythical Isle of Avalon is the Island of Apples.

According to Irish folklore, an apple peel, pared into one long continuous ribbon and thrown behind a woman’s shoulder, will land in the shape of her future husband’s initials.

An apple is a traditional gift for a beloved teacher.

In Ancient Greece, a man throwing an apple to a woman was a proposal of marriage. If she caught the fruit, it meant she accepted the proposal.

When I was a boy, there was an old apple tree in the yard of an abandoned farmhouse down a dirt road beyond our home. In the autumn of the year, the ground was littered with rotten apples. Apple fights, spontaneous frays, were great fun. Late one September afternoon, beneath the old apple tree, the battle was joined. All went well until a buddy of mine threw a rotten apple at me. I ducked.

The apple sailed over my head and toward his girlfriend. It was certainly not a marriage proposal, and she didn’t catch it. The rotten apple hit her in the face! As you might imagine, my buddy was no longer the apple of her eye!

How about them apples?

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

LABOR DAY

September 5, 2020

“Dr. Kirk, tomorrow is the day!” the young woman exclaimed. A petite blue-eyed blond, she stood in line with her tall, lanky husband at a local restaurant. I couldn’t help but notice that she was in a family way. The Biblical description is “great with child.” She was very pregnant.

“And what is tomorrow?” I asked.

“Tomorrow is labor day,” answered the young husband.

“Yes! Tomorrow morning at six o’clock, we have to be at Labor and Delivery at the hospital for the arrival of our first child.”

“Get some rest,” I advised. “There is a good reason they call it going into labor.” I spoke out of my experience of being with Clare for the births of each of our five children. I can attest to the fact that the labor of giving birth is hard work.

My dad, father of eight, used to say, “If men and women took turns having babies, no family would have more than three. There’s not a man on earth who would go through that twice.”

Labor Day as a holiday for workers was first proposed in May 1882 by a carpenter, Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor. After witnessing the annual labor festival held in Toronto, Canada, McGuire thought such a celebration was needed in this country. Others say that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, first proposed the holiday while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York.

Whether McGuire or Maguire, Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894 when the United States Congress unanimously voted to approve the legislation. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law. By that time, thirty states already celebrated the day. South Carolina was not one of them.

When I was a boy, it was never a holiday at the lumberyard. I remember it as the day the Southern 500 stock car race was run in Darlington, South Carolina.

Now Labor Day is a reminder of how I learned to work.

My grandfather was born in Tennessee in 1889.  I called him Pappy. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade to support his mother and three siblings following the death of his father in a railroad accident.   Enlisting in the United States Navy at age 19, Pappy served four years in Cuba.  Upon his discharge, he worked for a telegraph company as a lineman.  His company sent him to the Lowcountry of South Carolina to do the electrical wiring for a sawmill. 

At a Cakewalk at the Methodist church in Estill, he met the woman who would become his wife and my grandmother, Mammy. In 1923, Pappy and Mammy moved to Spartanburg, where he opened his own lumberyard. 

During the Great Depression, they lost everything.  With grit and faith, they raised nine children, sweet potatoes, and turkeys on a rented red clay farm in Cedar Springs.  Every person in the family had to work.

Following the Depression, Pappy opened another lumberyard, a family business that stayed in operation until 2009, forty-seven years after Pappy’s death.

When I was a boy, I wanted to work at the lumberyard.  It was a natural thing.  The men that I admired most worked at the lumberyard:  Dad and Pappy. 

My dad told me I could have a job, but he said, “Before you work at the lumberyard, you have to learn to work for your mama.” 

Working for my mother was harder than working anywhere else.  I spent most Saturday mornings waxing and polishing the white oak floors in our home. Mama always had plenty of chores to parcel out to her children. As the oldest of eight, I was expected to set the example.

I can still hear the reverberating echo of my mother’s warning, “Idleness is the devil’s workshop.”

Finally!  I got the promotion! I went to work at the lumberyard the summer after I finished the seventh grade.  I was thirteen years old.  I weighed no more than a hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet.

The very first day on the job, my dad put me to the task of unloading a boxcar filled with bags of cement. The old boxcar had just one door.  In those days, nothing was palletized. Forklifts were not yet available.  All the cement had to be taken out by hand, one ninety-six-pound bag at the time, put on hand trucks, rolled up a ramp, and loaded into a warehouse.  My dad knew that I needed a good teacher to show me how to work. That person was Charlie Norman. 

I don’t know how old Charlie was when I started working with him.  I asked him one time.  He said he was as old as dirt.  I didn’t ask again, but I knew Charlie was very old.  He had been working for my grandfather since before the Depression, delivering lumber in a one-horse wagon.

I will never forget that first day on the job.  Those bags of cement were nearly a hundred pounds of dead weight.  Charlie would stack them eight and nine high on the hand trucks, break the hand trucks down, and roll them up the ramp.  I could stack no more than three bags onto the hand trucks. I had to jump up and use all my weight on the handles to break it down.  It was all I could do to roll the hand trucks up the ramp.  Most of the time, I had to turn around backwards and pull the load up the ramp.

By about ten o’clock in the morning, I was drenched with sweat and covered with sticky cement.  Charlie peeled off his shirt.  His ebony skin glistened.  He looked like a bodybuilder.  He was an old man whose muscles were toned by hard work.

We took a half-hour break for the noon meal, not nearly enough time for me. I walked into the office and stood in front of a large exhaust fan for a few minutes.  Pappy saw me dripping wet, trying to cool down. He said, “Kirk if you get enough education, you can work in the shade.” It was a lesson I have never forgotten.

Charlie and I worked together all afternoon until quitting time. Charlie got his second wind.  He started whistling in a low whisper.  By four o’clock, he was singing.  We had worked all day long.  I was bone tired.  Charlie was lifting a low song under his breath, “We’ll work till Jesus comes.”

Dad and I got home a little after six o’clock.  I took a shower.  Mama had fixed a special meal, fried chicken, rice, and gravy.  I fell asleep at the supper table.  Dad guided me to bed and had a prayer with me. At five o’clock the next morning, he woke me up for my second day at the lumberyard. 

I worked all summer long, earning a grand total of two dollars a day. I learned to drive that summer – a three-ton lumber truck.

 I asked my Dad years later why he started me with such a difficult job. 

“I wanted you to learn that this is hard work.  Money doesn’t grow on trees.” 

I asked why he paid me so little. 

He grinned, “Be glad I didn’t pay you what you were worth.” 

As much as I enjoyed working with men I admired, as much as I enjoyed talking with customers, that summer was important because I learned the nobility of work.

And you know what? I didn’t have to work at a lumberyard very long before I heard the Lord calling me to do something else.   

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all fine bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.