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HARBINGERS OF SPRING

March 8, 2020

Daylight Saving Time reminds us to spring forward, but that is only one hint that spring is just two weeks away.

I recall that one March, when I was a teenager, snow fell on three consecutive Wednesdays.  Just a few years ago, the temperature in the Upstate 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 past, 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, King James Version) When I was a boy, I used to think of that passage as one of the strangest in the Bible.  I’ve spent a good bit of time out of doors and have rarely heard the voice of a turtle. 

In my garden, the truth of the scripture is verified by the blooming of flowering bulbs and shrubs.  The birds are singing. But so far, there is no sound from a turtle to be heard. 

I have heard a turtle a time or two.  On one occasion, it was the sound from a very large snapping turtle who 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 is what the Biblical poet had in mind.  Later translations use the word turtledove instead of turtle.  I hear the mournful cooing of those birds in my backyard every day. 

It has been an unusual winter here in the southern clime. Temperatures have been relatively mild. One or two encounters with light snow have called to mind winters past when the weather was far more severe. The happy-faced pansies and violas on our front porch dance in the breeze. I noticed green shoots emerging from the earth. Even on a day of light snowfall, I noticed yellow daffodils in bloom.

This has been one of the wettest winters on record. While another wintery blast or two will surely come our way, warmer days have brought a hint of spring to the Upstate. The Eastern bluebirds are searching for a place to nest. Before long, purple martin scouts will arrive to find a place to stay until fall. After several days of rain last week, at least five robins plucked earthworms from our yard. Male goldfinches are shedding their olive drab winter uniform to don the bright yellow feathers that give them their name.

Clare has already had an eye out for the arrival of hummingbirds. She knows what the birds know. Spring is in the air!

Stepping through our garden gate, we are greeted by spreading white and pink Lenten roses and nodding golden jonquils. They will soon be followed by purple crocus, delicate grape hyacinths, and the spikes of pale blue scilla. These plants compose a companion carpet beneath flowering trees. I have noticed a hint of yellow pollen beginning to cover my car and our porch furniture. Can spring be far away?

The nonstop procession of flowering trees in springtime is a wonder to behold. In our backyard, a weeping cherry tree that bloomed so beautifully every spring for twenty years died last summer. Still, I enjoy seeing the weeping cherries in other yards. Sergeant crab apples and Yoshino cherries each take their turn at beautifying the southern landscape. In Spartanburg, Pine Street and W. O. Ezell Boulevard will soon be lined with blossoms. Flowering peach and apple trees across the hills of the Upstate promise abundant fruit at roadside stands in the summer months ahead. The winged elm that grows near the hemlocks and the sassafras that stands above the rhododendron have less conspicuous green flowers adding a subtle touch of grace to the glory of early spring.

In our yard and throughout the Piedmont, the most eagerly awaited blossoms are those of the redbuds and dogwoods. These two trees are closely connected in several ways. Redbuds burst forth into full bloom in March. Dogwoods flower in April. The redbuds are covered with a profusion of purplish-pink flowers all along the branches. Heart-shaped leaves follow the flowers. Old-time herbalists report that its flowers, which have an agreeable acid taste, 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-spring. Described as America’s most beloved flowering tree, it 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. Its roots were boiled to make a scarlet dye.

The redbud and the dogwood have similarities beyond their herbal use, their usefulness as sources of dye, and their sheer beauty.  They are both small, understory trees. That means they grow beneath the canopy of larger woodland trees. Generally quite hardy, both are suitable as ornamental trees for local gardens and landscapes. Each tree will reseed readily – redbuds from distinctive seedpods and dogwoods from bright red berries. More significant, perhaps, is that redbuds and dogwoods are connected in southern folklore by the season of Lent, the forty days before Easter.

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 kind of tree to which Jesus was nailed would never again be used as a cross. From that time forth, all dogwood trees have been slender, bent, and twisted, not as a punishment to the tree, 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, on its outer edge, is marked with what appears to be the print of a rusty nail. The center of each flower, red as if stained with blood, resembles a crown of thorns. The blooming of the dogwood tree coincides with Holy Week. The flowers themselves remind us of the Good Friday story.

The flowering of the redbud tree falls earlier in the season of Lent. 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 from a redbud branch. The Biblical account says that, in despair, Judas hung himself.  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. For those who believe in the story of Christ’s death, the redbud leaves serve as a reminder that the heart of God is loving.

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

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