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A TALE OF TWO TREES

April 3, 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 Miracle Hill Spartanburg Rescue Mission. This emergency shelter serves people experiencing homelessness, including men, women, and mothers with children. 189 North Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29301, 864.583.1628.

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 redheaded woodpecker,” she said.

“Looks like a flicker,” I replied.

I later learned that we were both wrong.

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 on the back porch when I heard a disturbance coming from the Confederate jasmine that grows 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 bird on the arbor was a Cooper’s hawk.

This is the spring that we have all needed. A friend recently told me that the COVID-19 pandemic had added to his life. “I’ve picked up about ten pounds,” he said. “My doctor asked if I had been locked down with my refrigerator.”

We need this spring to renew our bodies. We also need the renewal of creation to restore our souls.

Yesterday I noticed the dogwood trees along South Converse Street were beginning to bloom. My grandmother, Granny, lived on South Converse Street. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration created the Works Progress Administration. The plan was to design projects that made jobs for unemployed workers.

One such project in Spartanburg was the building of a dam and the creation of Duncan Park Lake.  The basin for the lake was excavated by hand using pickaxes, shovels, and wheelbarrows. The site included many sapling dogwood trees. Those trees were transplanted to line both sides of my grandmother’s street.

As a boy, I can remember Granny’s street as one of the most beautiful in Spartanburg, especially every Easter. The dogwoods in full flower made the neighborhood look like it was floating in the clouds.

Several years after Granny’s death, her elegant old Victorian home was demolished in the name of Urban Renewal.

Yesterday I noticed that there are not nearly as many of the dogwoods along the street. More than half have died. The remaining ones are old and gnarled. Neither trees nor people can long escape the ravages of the years.

In our backyard, a weeping cherry tree, given to us by my brother and sister-in-law, has been cut down and the stump removed. Bill and Wanda gave us the sapling tree after the death of our son Erik. Two years ago, the tree stood more than twenty feet tall, and the hanging branches were covered with the delicate pink blossoms of early spring. A slight breeze would move the slender limbs in a gentle sway, scattering a few of the petals on the green lawn below. Then, disease took over, and the tree died. Even the death of a tree is a reminder of Holy Week.

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.  Flowering peach and apple trees planted across the foothills of the Upstate promise abundant fruit at roadside stands in the summer and fall months ahead.

Among the most eagerly awaited blossoms throughout the Piedmont are those of the redbuds and the dogwoods. In our garden, the redbuds burst into their pinkish-purple blooms about two weeks ago. 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, 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.

This morning Clare looked out of our bedroom window and commented on the beautiful sight. Yellow jasmine and white Delaware azaleas have joined the redbuds on display. The dogwoods are just beginning. Our enormous Queen Anne rose is starting to show color. Hosta shoots are rising from the earth.

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 our car and the porch furniture. My eyes are itching, and my sinuses are congested. Spring has arrived.

The redbud and the dogwood 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 much of the United States’ woodlands 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. The dogwood has been slender, bent, and twisted from that time forth, 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 symbol of the death of Jesus to people of the Christian faith.

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.

During Lent, through Holy Week and the Easter season, Christians commemorate the passion of Christ.  It is the occasion to remember that God, who is sovereign of all time, has intervened in human history as the great redeemer.  For me, the redbud and the dogwood are also reminders that the Creator has synchronized nature to give further evidence of the mystery and the majesty of a divine creative hand.

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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