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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.

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