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THE VERNAL EQUINOX

March 20, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Hatcher Garden and Woodland Preserve. Mail to P.O. Box 2337, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29304. Visit at 820 John B. White, Sr. Boulevard, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306. (864) 574-7724, info@hatchergarden.0rg/

The cool, rainy days last week called to mind another time. I remember a March, when I was a teenager, snow fell three consecutive Wednesdays.  Just a few years ago, the temperature plummeted to fourteen degrees one night in mid-March, nipping in the bud the bloom on many of our plants.  

It has been an unusual winter here in the southern clime. Temperatures have been relatively mild. One encounter with light snow 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 the day of light snowfall, I saw one yellow jonquil in bud.

This has been one of the wettest winters on record. While another wintry blast or two may come our way, warmer days have brought assurance that spring is here to stay in the Upstate. The Eastern bluebirds are searching for a place to nest. Before long, purple martin scouts will arrive to find a place to live 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.

Daffodils and their smaller Spanish cousins, jonquils, are harbingers of spring. Other flowering bulbs 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.

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. Spring has arrived.

The nonstop procession of flowering trees in springtime is a wonder to behold. A weeping cherry tree that bloomed so beautifully in our backyard 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. Redbuds burst forth into full bloom in March. Dogwoods flower in April.
            The fact that spring has sprung 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 crocuses are blooming, if the bluebirds are nesting, if basketball’s March Madness is in full swing, can spring be far behind?

On Saturday, March 20, 2021, at 5:37:31 AM, daylight saving time, spring officially arrived. This change may happen with little or no notice, but in the Upstate of South Carolina, at precisely that date and 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 worldwide.

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 to point 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.

Some believe magical balance in the universe occurs at the moment of the vernal equinox.  It is possible, they believe, to stand a raw egg on end only on the vernal or the autumnal equinox.

Standing a boiled egg on end on a hard and smooth surface requires care and patience, but a person with a steady hand can accomplish the trick 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 was built to 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 bluefin tuna. Neither of us could 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 eggs.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

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