Skip to content

NATIONAL HERO, JACKIE ROBINSON

April 23, 2017

Last week in Los Angeles, California, a new bronze statue was unveiled at Dodger stadium. Crafted by artist Branly Cadet, the statue is an image of Jackie Robinson stealing home. The idea for the new addition grew out of a meeting shortly after the team’s new ownership took control in 2012. Dodgers chairman Mark Walter had just met Robinson’s wife, Rachel.

“He pulled Mrs. Robinson aside and said, ‘We’re going to get a statue of your husband,'” team co-owner Magic Johnson said. “And he backed it up.”

It’s the first statue at Dodger Stadium. The unveiling came on the seventieth  anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. Baseball celebrates an annual Jackie Robinson Day on April 15, when all players and coaches wear his No. 42.

“Every advancement in society has come from people standing on the shoulders of giants,” Dodgers President Stan Kasten said. “And in the history of baseball, in the history of our country, few people have stood taller than Jackie Robinson.”

A pregame ceremony included Frank Robinson, baseball’s first black manager; Dodgers Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully; Robinson’s children, Sharon and David, Kasten and Johnson.

Rachel Robinson, 94, was also in attendance, as were Robinson’s former teammates Sandy Koufax, Don Newcombe, and Tommy Lasorda. Read more…

LET’S FLY A KITE!

April 19, 2017

Last week on my way to my teaching responsibilities at The University of South Carolina Upstate,  I drove past the duck pond and big fountain near Milliken headquarters. I saw families with young children enjoying Spring break.  Some were feeding the ducks, others were flying kites.

Clare and I were at the coast of South Carolina during Spring break several years ago. Good friends had allowed us to use their place at the beach for a time of uninterrupted writing. It was a pleasant and productive retreat for us. The weather was exceptionally warm as the bright sun pushed March temperatures close to seventy each day.

In any season beautiful weather brings much activity to the sandy shore.  Families with children built sandcastles fit for little princesses and princes. College boys pitched baseballs, tossed Frisbees, and threw footballs while stealing glances at college girls strategically sunbathing close by. Even a few daredevils – probably folks who had enjoyed a few too many beverages or those crazy Canadians who think that fifty degrees is as warm as ocean water ever gets – swam in the cold Atlantic.

From my perch inside the house, the activity that caught my eye was kite flying. Spring is the perfect kite-flying time, and the beach is the perfect kite-flying location. Soaring above the dunes were delta and diamond-shaped kites of various shapes and colors. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, each tethered with string, patrolled the skies as if attending to Curious George and Elmo. Flyers with ground control systems created the most fascinating display of aerobatics. The tricks, flips, and turns were amazing. One man’s kite – a five delta-winged multicolored ace – would take a kamikaze dive, swooping close to the sand.  Then at the last breathtaking moment, it would soar high above the waves. A black Labrador retriever – no doubt belonging to one of the crazy Canadians – was determined to seize the kite when it came close to the ground.  Seagulls dodged the unauthorized intruder when it ventured into their air space.

Watching these antics brought back memories of making my first kite when I was a Cub Scout.  It was crafted with newspaper, string, Elmer’s glue, and thin wood trimming gathered from sawdust piles near the table saw at the lumberyard. My diamond-shaped kite, which featured a picture of Stan “The Man” Musial – number six for the St. Louis Cardinals – flew well once I tied on a tail of scrap cloth.

The Chinese, said to have invented kites in the fifth century B.C., had materials ideal for kite building: silk fabric for sail material, high-tensile-strength silk for line, and bamboo for the strong, lightweight framework.

Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin flew a kite in a thunderstorm as an experiment to prove that electricity caused lightning.  I doubt that Ben would have been foolish enough to try such a test. In 1750 he did, however, publish a proposal for the experiment.

Orville and Wilbur Wright used kites when developing the first airplane in the late 1800s. Through the years kites have been used for military messaging and surveillance, science, meteorology, and photography.  They have also been used for lifting radio antennas, generating power, and conducting experiments with aerodynamics.

Now, kites are used almost exclusively for recreation. Kite boating and kite surfing are popular among the beach crowd. Of course, hang gliding and parasailing are extreme forms of kite flying. Kite ice skating and kite snowboarding may someday be events in the Winter Olympics.

A friend of mine fishes for red drum off the Outer Banks each October. Fishermen there deploy a kite to take their bait well beyond the rough surf by attaching the fishing line to the kite string with a clothespin. When the distance is right a simple snap of the wrist drops the bait to the ocean bottom.

My dad was always interested in teaching us new things. In the days of my youth we rarely bought a kite. We usually made them and some were dandy kites. Dad taught us how to launch our homemade creations. Most of the diamond-shaped kites flew well.

One rainy day in March years ago my dad suggested that we build a kite. “It won’t rain forever,” he said. “There’ll be a sunny, windy day before long. We can have a kite ready when the time comes.”

Dad, who had made a box kite when he was a boy, knew he could do it again. So, with thin dowel rods, butcher paper, and sturdy string, we built the contraption, which appeared much too heavy to fly.

On the first sunny afternoon I was ready to launch.

“Not enough wind,” Dad explained, “but you can try if you want to.”

Together we tried but; alas, the kite never got off the ground.

Two days later the wind was blowing, really blowing.

“Maybe too much wind,” Dad warned, “but you can try if you want to.”

We carried the cumbersome box kite to the backyard. I held the string while Dad tossed it into the wind. The kite took off, nearly pulling me off the ground as it soared higher and higher and further and further away. Dad was thrilled. I was delighted.

Then the wind died, forcing the kite into a sudden descent.  I lost control and watched helplessly as it crashed into a telephone line. At that very moment the wind gusted again, causing the kite to make several flips around the wire. When Dad and I both tried to pull the kite loose, the string snapped, leaving it tightly wound around the telephone wire. Over the next several weeks I watched the slow demise of my stranded box kite until it finally disintegrated during a hard spring rain.

Flying a kite is not always successful, but it is always fun.  Flying a kite is not a strenuous activity, but it is a healthy pastime.  When I saw families flying kites near the Milliken headquarters last week it brought back fond memories. The adults launched the simple kites and then handed the strings to the children at their side. The image brought to mind the words of a song from the Walt Disney movie Mary Poppins.

 

With tuppence for paper and strings

You can have your own set of wings

With your feet on the ground

You’re a bird in a flight

With your fist holding tight

To the string of your kite

 

When you send it flying up there

All at once you’re lighter than air

You can dance on the breeze

Over houses and trees

With your fist holding tight

To the string of your kite

 

Oh, oh, oh!

Let’s go fly a kite

Up to the highest height!

Let’s go fly a kite and send it soaring

Up through the atmosphere

Up where the air is clear

Oh, let’s go fly a kite!

The Chapman Cultural Center has announced the 2017 , Spartanburg Soar!

The fourth annual International Kite Festival is back this Saturday, April 22, 2017 from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M.! This family-friendly event began in 2014 as a mission to build civic pride, promote healthy outdoor play, and celebrate cultural diversity and creativity. Every year Spartanburg Soaring! is getting bigger.

The Festival will kick off at 11 A.M. in the greenspaces behind the Chapman Cultural Center and in Barnet Park. We encourage residents to bring their kites if they have one. Kites will also be available for purchase from the Chapman Cultural Center information booth and free kites will be given out while supplies last! Professional kite fliers will be in attendance with jaw-dropping aerial displays. Spartanburg Soaring! Kite Club, a group of locals that was formed after our inaugural festival, will be on hand, led by master kite maker and local enthusiast Chuck Holmes.

Holmes said: “The Spartanburg Soaring Kite Club and the WACKOS (Western Area Carolina Kite and Okra Society) will be at Spartanburg Soaring! to display their kites and to help participants get their kites launched and into the air. Our goal is together with area people to paint the sky with hundreds of beautiful kites. We hope that everyone will come out to join us!”

In addition to kite flying, the public can expect to hear live local music throughout the day, eat local foods, drink local beverages, and stroll through the local-art market for some shopping. Kids can try their hands at Kite trivia and decorating their own kites!

Music will be provided by The Rock and Roll Reunion Band (11 A.M.), The LOZ Band (1 P.M.), and The Abbey Elmore Band (3 P.M.) on the stage in Barnet Park.

Jennifer Evins, President and CEO of Chapman Cultural Center says: “When we started Spartanburg Soaring in 2014, it was to encourage cultural curiosity and promote active living. We hoped that the common love for kite flying across all cultures would bring people together to experience the vibrancy of our community.”

“Now, four years later, the festival represents that and so much more.  Spartanburg is soaring to new heights every year.”

This year’s sponsors for the festival are Spartanburg Soaring Kite Club, City of Spartanburg, The Phifer-Johnson Foundation, GSP International Airport, Molina Healthcare, Publix Super Markets Charities, WSPA-TV, and AT&T.

A rain date is planned for Sunday, April 23, 2017 from 1 P.M.-5 P.M..

Let’s go fly a kite!

CONSIDER THE EASTER LILIES

April 9, 2017

I am among a number of folks who are allergic to the pollen of Easter lilies. My sinuses stop up, my eyes itch, and I am constantly clearing my throat. Decongestants and antihistamines have helped some. The problem would be completely avoidable except for the fact that I am a pastor. The church I served for more than eighteen years had a long tradition of decorating the Sanctuary at Easter with beautiful white lilies.

The ladies on our flower committee went the extra mile in trying to help me. For several years, they removed the stamens from the blooms. Since these pollen-producers are considered the male parts of the flower, I suppose the resulting blossoms are somewhat like steers and geldings in the animal world. Thank you, flower committee for emasculating the lilies.

Florists and garden shops are well supplied with Easter lilies. These fragrant white flowers will be given as gifts to hospital patients and nursing home residents. Cemetery plots will be adorned with lilies. By Easter Sunday morning, the traditional white flowers will be in full display. Read more…

THE LEGEND OF THE TREES

April 2, 2017

Clare and I were enjoying a second cup of coffee and reading shared newspapers, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal and the New York Times, when we both noticed a large bird on the suet feeder just outside our parlor window.

“There’s a red-headed woodpecker,” she said.

“Looks like a flicker,” I replied.

When the bird departed it perched upright on the trunk of a nearby sassafras tree. Then Clare and I both noticed that the sassafras just beyond the feeder was beginning to display chartreuse buds.

Later that same afternoon, I was sitting outside when I heard a disturbance coming from the Confederate jasmine growing on the arbor. The ruckus came from a smallish grey hawk attempting to snag a purple finch for lunch. He paused on a nearby branch before sailing away to better pickings.

With the help of the Cornell University Ornithology Web site, I was able to identify both birds.  The one on the feeder was a red-bellied woodpecker. The other on the arbor was a Cooper’s hawk.

In our backyard, a weeping cherry tree given to us by my brother and sister-in-law has been in full bloom. Bill and Wanda gave us the sapling tree after the death of our son Erik. Now standing more than twenty feet tall, the hanging branches were covered with the delicate pink blossoms of early spring. A slight breeze moves the slender limbs in a gentle sway, scattering a few of the petals on the green lawn below.

The redbuds are bursting into their pinkish-purple glory. Dogwood flowers are opening. Our side yard features the largest of our redbuds and the oldest of our dogwoods. The trees moved with us from our previous home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Spartanburg, South Carolina, back in 1980. I moved them because they were young trees that I thought would transplant well. They have established deep roots in this place just as our family has.

While the blooming display of the redbuds and the dogwoods take center stage, some trees, like the sassafras that grows beside our home, have less conspicuous flowers. Still they add a subtle touch of grace to the glory of early spring. The chartreuse blooms of the sassafras precede the redbud’s pink-purple flowers by only a few days.  The two complement each other magnificently.

Stepping through our garden gate, we are greeted with an array of blossoms. Bright yellow and purple crocus, delicate grape hyacinths, nodding golden jonquils, spreading white and pink Lenten roses, and the spikes of pale blue scilla compose a companion carpet beneath the flowering trees. Yellow pollen is beginning to cover my truck and the porch furniture. My eyes are itching and my sinuses are congested. Spring has arrived.

The nonstop procession of blossoming trees in springtime is a wonder to behold. Sergeant crabapples and Yoshino cherries each take their turn at beautifying the southern landscape. They are in full display along South Pine Street in Spartanburg, South Carolina, my hometown.  Flowering peach and apple trees planted across the foothills of the Upstate promise abundant fruit at roadside stands in the summer months ahead.

Among the most eagerly awaited blossoms in our yard and throughout the Piedmont are those of the redbuds and the dogwoods. These two trees are closely connected in several ways. The redbuds burst forth into full bloom in March while the dogwoods flower in April. The redbuds are covered with a profusion of pink-purple flowers all along the branches. Heart-shaped leaves follow the flowers. Old time herbalists report that the flowers have an agreeable acid taste and can be added to salads or used in the making of pickles. In the good old days, smaller redbud branches were boiled to make a pink dye for homespun yarn.

The dogwood is the most common flowering tree that dapples the woodlands of much of the United States in mid-to-late spring. It has been described as America’s most beloved flowering tree and has been designated the official tree of several states. Pioneers learned from the Native Americans that dogwood bark could be used to make remedies for various illnesses, including fever and headaches. The roots were boiled to make a scarlet dye.

The redbud and the dogwood have several things in common beyond their medicinal value, their usefulness as sources of dye, and their sheer beauty.  They are both small understory trees, that is, they grow beneath the canopy of larger woodland trees. Both are suitable as ornamental trees for home gardens and are generally quite hardy. Each tree will reseed readily, redbuds from distinctive seedpods, and dogwoods from bright red berries. More significant perhaps is that the redbud and the dogwood are connected by folklore.

The legend of the dogwood holds that until the time of the crucifixion of Christ, dogwoods grew to reach the size of mighty oaks. So strong and solid was the wood that it was chosen as the timber for the cross of Jesus. To be used for such a cruel death was distressing to the tree. In compassion, the Creator declared that the tree to which Jesus was nailed would never again have to be used as a cross. From that time forth, the dogwood has been slender, bent, and twisted, not as a punishment but as a blessing. In sympathy to the suffering of Christ, the dogwood bore white blossoms in the shape of a cross, with two long and two short petals. Each petal bears, on its outer edge, the print of a rusty nail. The center of each flower, as if stained with blood, resembles a crown of thorns. The flowers themselves are a reminder of the death of Jesus to all who believe.

Even as the dogwood tree’s blooming usually coincides with Good Friday, the redbud tree flowers nearer the Ides of March, the date that lives in infamy as the day of the betrayal of Julius Caesar by Brutus. The redbud tree represents betrayal, not by Brutus, but by Judas Iscariot. People of the southern Appalachian Mountains have long referred to the redbud as the Judas tree.

An ancient woodcut by the artist Castor Durante depicts the figure of Judas hanging, as an act of suicide, from one of the branches of a redbud, illustrating the legend of the tree. Again the tradition was so distressing that, rather than cursing the redbud as a symbol of betrayal, the Creator blessed the tree with heart-shaped leaves that are in full display by Good Friday. It is a reminder for those who believe that the tragedy of these events so long ago is evidence of the loving heart of God.

When we lived in another city we had become friends with an older couple who were avowed agnostics. They had both a redbud and a dogwood in their yard. They were aware of the legends.

“Should we cut them down because of the legends?” the husband asked rhetorically.

“Absolutely not!” his wife answered. “We’ll keep them because they are beautiful trees.”

And so they are!

For me, these flowering trees of spring are evidence enough of the mystery and the majesty of a divine creative hand.

THE BANJO PICKERS

March 25, 2017

Uncle Archie was an eccentric fellow. He drove a Model T Ford, was married at least three times, fathered fourteen or more children, and he played the five-string banjo. I remember Saturday afternoons spent singing on the front porch of the Hutson family homeplace in Barnwell County, South Carolina. Uncle Archie picked the banjo. Cousins Parnell and Billy played guitars. Neighbors came with a mandolin and a fiddle. Uncle Creech was the percussionist, alternating between a scrub board and two clacking spoons. Sometimes there would be a harmonica, a jaw harp, or a one-string, broom-handle washtub base. Uncle Archie’s brother, Uncle Quincy, would occasionally play a limber handsaw. But the banjo was the featured instrument. It was on that front porch in the sandhills that I grew fond of the five-string banjo.

I got my first banjo when I was a senior in high school. It is a Gibson extended neck five-string. My banjo is just like the one played by Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio and by the folksinger Pete Seeger. I learned to strum a few chords, but I never have learned to pick the way the best banjo players do.

Jerome Fowler of Clifton taught me to play the guitar. When I showed my banjo to him, he said, “Playing the banjo will drive you crazy!”

That must have been what happened to Uncle Archie.

Most people who have tried the five-string agree that in order to pick the thing you have to be a little bit addled. If you’re not deranged when you begin, that short drone fifth string will drive you batty with its constant ringing of a high G-note.

In 1965, when I was a senior at Furman University, I was president of the Pep Club. One of my responsibilities was to organize a campus-wide concert on Friday night before the Homecoming football game.  I decided to hold an outdoor event in the middle of a big grassy field. I made arrangements to borrow an eighteen-wheel flatbed truck.

I delegated most of the details to other club members and plans were in place. All but one! The guy who promised me he would secure a band came up empty.

With the event only two weeks away, I decided to call on a fellow from my hometown, Spartanburg, South Carolina. Our band for the event was pure country. I engaged Don Reno and the Tennessee Cut-Ups.

I wondered how the Furman student body would respond to bluegrass music.

Don Reno and his boys climbed onto the flatbed decked out in cowboy hats and boots. They cranked up the volume and cut loose with a rousing performance. On that cool, sunny afternoon the Furman student body heard one of the best five-string banjo players ever. Using his unique three-finger style of picking, Reno had some students clogging in the grass. Many were toe-tapping and knee-slapping throughout most of the concert.

Don Reno was born in Spartanburg County.  His family moved to Heywood County, North Carolina, when he was a boy. He first picked the banjo when he was five years old.  He was basically self-taught. He became known as one of the best by the time he was a teenager playing with Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks. He recorded with Woody Guthrie. He joined Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, playing with them for several years.

Later in his career, Reno reunited with Arthur Smith for one recording session.  Together they produced “Feuding Banjos,” which was later re-titled “Dueling Banjos” for its use in the 1972 film “Deliverance.”

There are other great banjo pickers from Spartanburg County. Buck Trent was born and raised in Arcadia. He played with Bill Carlisle, Porter Wagner, and Roy Clark, and was a regular on the television show “Hee-Haw.”

Bobby Thompson from Converse Mill worked with Carl Story, and became one of the best studio musicians in Nashville. He played in the band on “Hee-Haw.” He was credited with developing the melodic style of five-string banjo picking.

Some have said, incorrectly, that the banjo is the only instrument to originate in this country. By the early 1600s, the four-string banjo had been brought to America. Enslaved Africans fashioned instruments like those they knew in their homeland. Early versions were made from tanned skins stretched over gourds connected to strips of wood. Gut and hemp were used for the strings. Slaves on Southern plantations used African names for these instruments. Called bangie, banza, banjer, and banjar, the instrument finally became known as the banjo.

Joel Walker Sweeney had a traveling minstrel show with banjo players in the early 1800s. Sweeney added the fifth string to the instrument. So, it is the five-string banjo that is a uniquely American instrument.

The drone fifth string gives the instrument its distinctive sound. Constantly tuned to a high G-note, that fifth string is the steel demon that will drive you crazy.

My grandfather, born and raised in middle Tennessee, told me that Uncle Dave Macon from McMinnville, Tennessee, was the best five-string player he knew. Macon was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry. There have been many other notable pickers from Mark Twain to Steve Martin to Ricky Skaggs.  Each person who plays the instrument develops a unique picking style.

One of the finest is Ralph Stanley, born in Big Spraddle, Virginia. His mother bought him his first banjo when Ralph was 15 years old. She agreed to pay five dollars for the used instrument. The woman she bought it from took payment in groceries from the small mountain store run by Ralph’s mother. His mother, a member of the famous Carter Family, taught Ralph to play using the claw hammer style in which the thumb and the first two fingers move rapidly across the strings.

Stanley and his brother Carter formed the Clinch Mountain Boys. Drawing on the minor-key singing style of their Primitive Baptist tradition and the harmonies of the Carter family, the Clinch Mountain Boys found their place in Bluegrass music. They were featured in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” a movie produced in 2000. Ralph had learned the theme song of the soundtrack, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” years before from his dad.

Among the banjo players in my acquaintance are some unique people. Ralph Boney not only plays the five-string, he picks it left-handed!

Walker Copley, who sells and repairs watches as his day job, plays the banjo on the side.

Clare’s cousin Donna Roper plays the five-string continuing the tradition of many fine lady pickers.

On a Sunday afternoon nearly five years ago, 2,300 mourners crowded into the famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. An iconic banjo surrounded by dozens of floral arrangements decorated the platform. A closed casket was placed in front of the famous stage.  The audience gathered to pay tribute to bluegrass musician and Grand Ole Opry star Earl Scruggs who died on Wednesday, March 28, 2012. He was eighty-eight years old.

Scruggs’ public funeral service was held at the same auditorium where he had played his songs for years on the Grand Ole Opry. The four-time Grammy Award winner recorded his final album at this Nashville landmark. Nearby is a cluster of downtown honky-tonks where Scruggs’ music is still played. A plaque in his honor hangs three blocks away in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Charlie Daniels, best known for his fiddle playing, commented, “No one will ever play the banjo like Earl.”

Ricky Skaggs stated that Scruggs “was the most humble musician I ever met.”

On Sunday evening just a week later, the Academy of Country Music held its annual awards show in Las Vegas. Rascal Flatts was joined by a special guest on banjo, Steve Martin, to pay tribute to Scruggs.

Earl Scruggs put his trademark on bluegrass music.

The North Carolina native started playing the five-string banjo at the age of four, using the traditional claw-hammer style of picking.  By the time he was ten years old, he had developed a three-finger method that became known as Scruggs style. Combined with a string-bending technique, Earl elevated the banjo from backup to a lead instrument.

Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in late 1945 and quickly popularized his syncopated, three-finger picking style.

The unique banjo picker played for twenty years with guitarist Lester Flatt. The two were best known for their song “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from The Beverly Hillbillies television series.  Their song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was featured in the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”

In January 1973, a tribute concert was held for Scruggs in Manhattan, Kansas. The concert was filmed and became the 1975 documentary film “Banjo Man.”

Earl learned to play on the banjo belonging to his father, who died when Earl was only four years old. Earl’s last banjo, a 1935 Gibson RB-3 flathead nicknamed Nellie, was surrounded by flowers on the Ryman Auditorium stage for his memorial service.

Born and reared in the Flint Hill community in Cleveland County, North Carolina, Earl Scruggs is, hands down, the best of all time. At an 80th birthday party for Earl in 2004, country singer Porter Wagoner said, “Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.”

Even with his world-wide fame and numerous awards, the talented musician from just south of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, remained a humble man who remembered his roots. He never forgot his own people, and they will never forget him.

In the 1960s, my brother Lawton, while a student at Gardner-Webb College, joined a folk group called The Joyful Noise. One Monday, the Campus Minister asked the group to sing in chapel. They gladly accepted, but Lawton had left his banjo at home in Spartanburg.

The college chaplain said he knew where to find a banjo for Lawton to borrow. A maintenance man at the college loaned his banjo to Lawton. When Lawton returned the impressive old five string, the generous fellow said, “Thank you for taking care of my banjo. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to it. It belongs to my brother.”

The maintenance man’s name was Horace Scruggs.

His brother’s name was Earl!

THE FIRST DAY OF SPRING

March 19, 2017

The brief snowfall last Sunday reminded me of the March when I was in the tenth grade. That year, 1960, snow fell on three consecutive Wednesdays in March.  Just a few years ago, the temperature plummeted to fourteen degrees on a night in mid-March, nipping in the bud the bloom on many of our tender plants.

The Bible says, “for, lo, the winter is passed, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land” (Song of Solomon 2:11-12 King James Version).  Even in my backyard now the truth of that scripture is verified by the blooming of flowering bulbs and shrubs. Birds are singing.  The robins and the bluebirds have returned, preparing for their nesting.  But so far I have heard no sound from a turtle.

When I was a boy I used to think that passage was one of the strangest in the Bible.  I’ve spent a good bit of time out of doors and have heard the voice of a turtle only a time or two.  On one occasion, a very large snapping turtle had the poor taste to chomp down on a catfish line, embedding a large hook in his pallet.  An angry snapping turtle makes an unmistakable sound.  I doubt that the poetry of the Bible had that hissing in mind.  Later translations substitute turtle with turtle dove, a bird I see every day in my backyard.

The fact that spring is close at hand is unmistakable.  In his “Ode to the West Wind,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” A better question is, if the daffodils are blooming, if the bluebirds are nesting, if basketball’s March madness is in full swing, can spring be far behind?

Monday, March 20, 2017, marks the official arrival of spring. At precisely 6:28 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, the sun will cross directly over the earth’s equator. In the northern hemisphere this moment is known as the vernal equinox. Simultaneously, in the southern hemisphere, the same moment marks the autumnal equinox, the beginning of fall.

The word equinox means equal night. Because the sun is positioned at its zenith above the equator, day and night are approximately equal in length throughout the world.

This brief moment of balance between light and dark occurs because the earth is tilted on its axis. Because of the tilt, we receive the sun’s rays most directly in the summer. In the winter, when the earth is angled away from the sun, the rays pass through the atmosphere at a greater slant, bringing lower temperatures. That tilt provides our seasons.

For thousands of years, the vernal equinox has been the occasion for rituals marking the advent of spring. Many early civilizations celebrated fertility rites because the earth becomes fruitful again in spring.

Early Egyptians built the Great Sphinx so that it points directly toward the rising sun on the day of the vernal equinox. The mysterious Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in England is thought to have been an ancient observatory dating to 5000 BC. Archeologists believe celebrations occurred there on the first day of spring.  The vernal equinox also marks the beginning of Nowruz, the Persian New Year rooted in the 3000-year-old tradition of Zoroastrianism. Christians in the west always celebrate Easter on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

Daffodils and their smaller Spanish cousins, jonquils, are harbingers of spring. Other flowering bulbs, like crocus and Lenten roses, are welcome sights even in the snow. Once daffodils bloom, we have no doubt that the seasons are changing. It is as if the nodding trumpet-shaped flowers herald the arrival of spring.

Years ago two of our sons and I took a backpacking trip during spring break along the Foothills Trail in the Dark Corner, the northwestern section of South Carolina. When we crested a hill somewhere between the Keowee and the Whitewater rivers, the stunning sight of hundreds of yellow daffodils greeted us. An old homestead, now marked only by a crumbling fieldstone foundation and collapsed chimney, had long since disappeared. The flowers that graced the site each spring had survived, spreading through a meadow and across the forest floor.

The English poet William Wordsworth memorialized the daffodil in lines penned in 1804:

I wander’d lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Gene was a dear friend who grew up on a farm in Cherokee County, South Carolina. His success with the family business enabled him to build a home on the family farm within a stone’s throw of the old home place.  The beautiful new house has a wrap-around porch, graced with big rocking chairs. Visitors approach the home by a long driveway, flanked on the left by a horse pasture and weathered barn. Up a hill to the right is the foundation of the former home.  In the early spring, this hill is covered with bright daffodils. Originally planted by Gene’s mother around the old farmhouse, the flowers have naturalized, scattering helter-skelter down the hillside.  Each year the daffodils bloom from late February through March, making the yellow-splotched hill a sight to behold.

Several years ago, after Gene experienced several months of increasingly serious health problems, it became clear that he was quite ill.  The diagnosis was a rapidly-growing rare form of cancer.

In mid-March, Gene went home from the hospital. On a bright, warm Sunday afternoon, Gene asked if he could see the daffodils.  Surrounded by his loving wife, children, and several grandchildren, Gene was transported by wheelchair down the driveway near the barn.  He sat quietly for a few moments, taking in the sight of the hillside covered in delicate yellow blooms, dancing in the breeze.

Three days later Gene died. His death came quickly, far sooner than most of us had expected. While his death was anticipated, it was also sudden, making the grief experience jagged and confusing for family and friends.  Before the funeral the family picked bright yellow flowers from the hillside next to the old home placed. At the graveside in a country churchyard, his children and grandchildren each placed a daffodil on the polished wooden casket.  Even though yellow daffodils bring to mind bittersweet memories, they will be a perennial symbol of hope for Gene’s family.

In his concluding lines in the poem “Daffodils,” Wordsworth captures, for all who find in them a signal of hope, the wonder of these spring flowers:

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Jesus taught his followers how to cope with worry and anxiety. His counsel was to pay attention to birds and flowers:

Look at the birds of the air (and)…the flowers of the field.

(Matthew 6:26, 28)

For Gene’s family those flowers will always be daffodils.

Here is a two minute look at daffodils.

SAINT PATRICK

March 17, 2017

The story of Saint Patrick, one of the most beloved of all saints, is a strange mixture of history and legend. Patrick was born into a wealthy family in England about 385 A.D. His father was a deacon from a Roman family of high social standing. His mother was a close relative of Martin of Tours. Patrick’s grandfather was a priest in the Catholic Church.

As a youth, Patrick had little interest in Christianity or in education. Neither was forced upon him, but later in life deficits in these areas would become a source of embarrassment for him. In the early 440s he wrote in his Confessions, “I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education.”

When Patrick was sixteen years old, Irish pirates captured and sold him into slavery in Ireland. Patrick worked as a shepherd for his master, a Druid high priest in the religion of the ancient Celts.

In time Patrick came to view his enslavement as a test of his faith. During his six years of captivity, he became devoted to Christianity through constant prayer. He explained in his Confessions that the Lord had mercy on his youth and ignorance and gave him the opportunity to be forgiven of his sins and to be converted to Christianity.

At the age of twenty-two, Patrick had a dream, encouraging him to escape from Ireland. In that dream, the voice of God promised that he would find the way back to his homeland in England. Patrick began this journey by walking across Ireland to the coast where he convinced sailors to let him board their ship. After three days of sailing, he and the crew abandoned the ship in France and wandered, lost, for twenty-eight days—covering 200 miles in the process. At last, Patrick was reunited with his family in England.

Patrick recounts another vision he had a few years after returning home:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish.” As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

Interpreting this vision as a call from God, Patrick became determined to free the Irish from paganism by converting them to Christianity.  He never lost sight of that vision.

As a free man, Patrick traveled to Auxerre, France, where he studied and entered the priesthood under the guidance of the missionary St. Germain. In 431, Pope Celestine consecrated Patrick as Bishop of the Irish and dispatched him to Ireland to spread the gospel.

There Patrick met with hostile resistance.  Legally, he was without protection.  He wrote that he was, on one occasion, beaten, robbed of all he had, and put in chains.  Patrick wondered if, perhaps, execution awaited him.

Regardless of that reception, it is said that Patrick converted the entire country of Ireland in less than thirty years. Through his preaching he convinced Druid priests and peasants alike that they would become “the people of the Lord and the children of God” by accepting Christianity.

Interestingly, Ireland had very few Christian martyrs. The willingness of the Irish people to accept Christianity was due in large part to Patrick’s familiarity with their culture and Celtic religion. The genius of Patrick’s approach was to mesh the symbols of Christianity with those of their ancient religion. The Celtic cross, for example, combines the most recognizable sign of the passion of Christ with the circle of life central to the fertility religion of the Celts.

According to legend Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to teach the Irish the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Its green color and the number three were already considered sacred in ancient Celtic religion. Prominent in ancient Ireland was the belief in the Triple Goddesses named Brigid, Ériu, and Morrigan.

The Gaelic word seamrog means little clover. Most botanists affirm that white clover is the original, authentic shamrock. In the Upstate of South Carolina, white clover grows wild in many lawns. This same white clover plant is the plant that Patrick used to illustrate three persons in one God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.) For this reason, shamrocks are a central symbol for St Patrick’s Day.

According to legend, Patrick is also credited with banishing all snakes from the Emerald Isle into the North Atlantic Ocean. The tale holds that during a forty-day fast, he was taking a stroll on a hilltop near the sea when he encountered the snakes. The forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan come to mind.

All biological and archaeological evidence suggests, however, that Ireland never had snakes after the ice age. Author Betty Rhodes has suggested that the snakes Patrick banished actually referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids. Druid priests often wore tattoos of snakes on their arms.

In time Patrick brought Christian structures to Ireland by electing Church officials, creating councils, founding monasteries, and organizing the country into dioceses.

Though he was never formally canonized by a Roman Pope, Patrick is on the List of Saints and has been declared a Saint in Heaven by many Catholic churches. Saint Patrick is also venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Patrick founded his first church in a barn at Saul, which was donated to him by a local chieftain.  Many believe that Patrick died at Saul but was buried alongside St. Brigid and St. Columba at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down. Nearby on the crest of a hill is a statue of him with bronze panels showing scenes from his life.

The year of Patrick’s death is uncertain. Many scholars ascribe a date of 493, making Patrick 107 years old when he died. This improbability has led some historians to suggest a two-Patrick theory, the idea that two different people by the same name carried out the ministry ascribed to Patrick.

Saint Patrick’s Day is observed on March 17, the date of his death.  In the dioceses of Ireland, it is a holy day of obligation; outside of Ireland, it can be a celebration of Irish heritage.

March 17 usually falls during the season of Lent. For more than 1,000 years, the Irish have observed St. Patrick’s Day as a religious holiday. Traditionally on St. Patrick’s Day, Irish families would attend church in the morning and celebrate later. On Saint Patty’s Day, many folks enjoy a meal of corned beef, cabbage, and Irish potatoes. Others imbibe green beer and Irish whiskey until they see leprechauns. All of these customs celebrate the feast day of a Celtic Christian saint.

I have traced my family tree to the MacNeil clan, which originated in Celtic Ireland.  These kinfolk migrated to Scotland and then returned to Northern Ireland during the Irish Plantation. My American ancestors were Scots-Irish.

The notion that Saint Patrick initiated the custom of pinching folks who fail to wear green on March 17, the day he died, is silly.

Still, on Saint Patrick’s Day I plan to wear green, just to be sure.