RAINBOWS, BLUEBIRDS, AND IRISES
Ever since Noah’s clumsy gopher wood ark settled on Mount Ararat, the rainbow has held a special fascination for the people of planet Earth, Even the busiest, most preoccupied among us will pause a moment and a take a deep breath at the sight of a colorful arch in the clouds.
At age seventeen I stood at an overlook above the Zambezi River in the heart of Africa to marvel at the splendor of Victoria Falls. David Livingston, the Scottish missionary and explorer, named the specular cataract for his queen. The African people know the place as Mosi-oa-Tunya or the Smoke that Thunders. On sunny days there is always a rainbow in the mist above the falls.
When I was nineteen I traveled with my brothers along old Route 66, also known as the Mother Road. To the west thunderheads loomed over a mesa somewhere between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. A complete rainbow framed by black clouds arched above the burnt red desert.
Years later in the nation of Israel I witnessed two of my most memorable rainbows. While I was having a meal on a rainy afternoon at a kibbutz atop the Golan Heights, the sun peeked out from behind grey clouds and a vivid rainbow arched to the Sea of Galilee below.
Three days later on Mount Carmel amid flowering redbud trees, I saw a rainbow stretch from the top of the mountain down to the Mediterranean. The Holy Land was made even more sacred by these experiences.
The science of rainbows is simple physics. Sunlight passes through raindrops at the proper angle. The water droplets act as tiny prisms, and they split light into a spectrum. Maybe it is the poet in me, but I much prefer the myths to the science.
Native American people tell tales of the trickster Coyote. When the earth was new, Coyote, who lived beside a waterfall, realized that all of the flowers in his meadow were white. He gathered his paints and went to the meadow.
Coyote arranged red and orange and yellow and green and blue and violet paint pots next to him in the tall grass. He began to paint the flowers in his meadow. He painted the violets dark blue and the tiger lilies orange. He made the roses red and pink. Then he painted each daffodil bright yellow.
Overhead, two bluebirds were playing games, chasing each other back and forth across the meadow.
Coyote continued painting yellow centers in the white daisies. Above him, the two bluebirds changed their game. How fast could they dive down to the green meadow?
The first bluebird sailed down and then pulled up sharply just before touching the ground. As he soared pass Coyote, his right wing dipped into the red paint pot. When the second bluebird dove toward the grass, his left wing grazed the orange paint pot.
Coyote scolded the birds, but they kept up their game, diving down toward the grass where he sat painting and then flying back up into the sky. Soon their feet and feathers were covered with paint of all colors. Finally Coyote waved his arms to shoo the birds away.
The bluebirds started chasing each other again, sailing this way and that over top of the waterfall. The first bluebird left a long red paint streak against the sky. The second bluebird chased his friend through the mist, leaving an orange paint streak. Then the birds turned. This time, the first bluebird left a yellow paint streak and the second left a blue-violet paint streak. When Brother Sun shone on the colors, they sparkled radiantly through the mist of the waterfall.
Coyote looked up in delight when the brilliant colors spilled over his meadow. A gorgeous arch of red and orange and yellow and green and blue and violet shimmered in the sky above the waterfall. The rainbow had been created.
In The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland sang of the connection between bluebirds and rainbows. Two of the most impressive rainbows in my experience were arched over Greenlawn Cemetary, one after the funeral for Ron Wells, the other after the service for Ray Cash. Greenlawn is also the place where I saw a mated pair of bluebirds perched on our son’s tombstone. Both bluebirds and rainbows are symbols of hope. So, too, is the iris.
In Greek mythology, Iris was the goddess of the rainbow, the messenger of the Olympian gods. She was often represented as the handmaiden and personal messenger of Hera. For the coastal-dwelling Greeks, the rainbow’s arc was often seen spanning the distance between cloud and sea, very much like my Holy Land experiences.
Iris was believed to replenish the rain clouds with water from the sea. She is depicted in ancient Greek art as a beautiful young woman standing beside Zeus or Hera, the king and queen of the gods. Iris has golden wings, a herald’s staff, and a water pitcher in her hand.
In botanical terms iris is the name for a beautiful flower. According to Master Gardner, Everette Lineberger, there are more than 4500 varieties of iris. Everette should know. Most people in Spartanburg County acknowledge him as the Iris King.
Spring in our garden has been spectacular! Yellow jasmine, Lady Bank roses, and most of the azaleas have commanded center stage. Now our Miss Kim lilac is the star.
The irises have put on an outstanding show. Dwarf irises are among the first flowers to bloom. These small sturdy plants are cousins to the wild blue iris found in pine forests throughout the Southeast. Dwarf irises display their array of colors as the opening act to their taller family members.
On either side of our garden gate is a welcoming committee of pure white intermediate iris. They make delightful companions to dancing yellow daffodils. They conclude their blooming just as the tall bearded irises come into flower. From late April into May these stately ladies make their debut.
In our garden many of the tall irises are pass-along plants from the gardens of mothers and grandmothers on both sides of our family. A son and daughter-in-law shared solid purple, gold, and pink bloomers from their first home. Some were given by a grieving widower. He wanted his wife’s irises to have a good home.
In mid-April I was pleasantly surprised by a stunning sight. A bed of reblooming irises was in full display. They have names like Immortality and Resurrection. They came from my friend and pastoral colleague, the Iris King, Everette Lineberger.
Early in his ministry, when he was called as pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Rock Hill, the parsonage had a cottage garden planted by the previous pastor. Everette learned about the flowers he had inherited.
In 1955, he bought nine iris plants. Since that time he estimates that he has nurtured more than 1500 varieties. His irises have won awards from Charleston to Spartanburg. He has developed, named, and introduced thirteen new varieties. One is named for his wife, Ann; another, Deb’s Sunshine, is named for their daughter. He became such an authority on the lovely flowers that he served seven years on the Board of the American Iris Society.
When Everette retired from St. John’s Lutheran Church in Spartanburg, he started his backyard iris business at Quail Hill Gardens in Inman. At one time he had 750 varieties.
The iris is the national flower of France. Legend holds that upon his conversion to Christianity, Clovis, king of the Franks, was presented a golden iris by an angel. Joan of Arc carried a white flag bearing the fleur-de-lis, a stylized iris, when she led French troops to victory over the English.
The fleur-de-lis was used by the monarchs of France as a royal decoration. King Louis VI became the first French monarch to use the emblem on his shield.
Everette Lineberger is not French royalty. But in the Upstate he is the Iris King!