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THE VERNAL EQUINOX

March 20, 2016

The cold snap here in the first day of spring called to mind another time. One March when I was a teenager, snow fell on three consecutive Wednesdays.  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 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 KJV).  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 rather large hook in his palate.  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 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?

Today, Sunday, March 20, 2016, spring arrived. In the Upstate of South Carolina, at precisely 12:30 A.M. daylight saving time, the sun crossed directly over the earth’s equator. This moment is known as the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere, the beginning of spring. In the southern hemisphere it is the autumnal equinox.

Equinox means equal night. Because the sun is positioned at its zenith above the equator, day and night are approximately equal in length all over the world.

This brief moment of balance between light and dark occurs because the earth is tilted on its axis. Because of that orientation, 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 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.

Several 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.

Some believe magical balance in the universe occurs at the moment of the vernal equinox.  It is possible, they believe, to stand an egg on end at this point in time.

Standing an egg on end on a hard and smooth surface requires care and patience, but it can be done any time of year. Take a fresh, uncooked egg and hold it with the larger end resting on a table or countertop. Wait several minutes for the fluid content to settle in the large end of the egg. Then, carefully test the balance. Be patient as you find the point where you can ever so gently release it, allowing the egg to stand on end.

I knew a man named Vernal who owned and operated a small sports fishing boat. Preferring to be called Captain Vern, he was a weathered native of Cape Hatteras who earned his living from the sea. Captain Vern had served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II.  He knew Diamond Shoals, the Graveyard of the Atlantic, like the back of his hand.

Captain Vern had built his fishing boat, The Sea Eagle, in his own backyard. A trustworthy vessel with a shallow draw, the boat could skim only inches above the sandbars across the rough waters of Hatteras Inlet. Able to navigate close to shore, Captain Vern could reach the Gulf Stream more quickly than competing boats.

I was aboard The Sea Eagle when my buddy and I each hooked a blue fin tuna. Neither of us was able to land the big fish, but we enjoyed an hour of exhilarating fishing.

Early one morning, well before dawn, I ate breakfast at a local Hatteras cafe. I heard the waitress behind the counter call to the kitchen, “Uncle Vernal’s in the parking lot. Put his eggs on!”

Wondering about Captain Vern’s name, I asked, “Is Captain Vern your Uncle?”

“Yep.”

“He has an unusual name,” I commented.

“Vernal? Yep, he was born on March 20. He and my daddy are twins.”

“What’s your dad’s name?”

“Urnal,” she answered.

I asked no more questions.

By the way, Captain Vern ate his eggs sunny-side up.

Even I could balance those.

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