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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.

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