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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

OUR STATE TREE: THE PALMETTO PALM

March 27, 2021

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 Noble Tree Foundation, c/o Spartanburg County Foundation, 424 East Kennedy Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, 864-529-3364. This nonprofit promotes the presence of Noble Trees in Spartanburg County through educational opportunities and encouraging tree planting and maintenance programs. https://www.nobletreefoundation.org/

Last summer one of our grandsons found a prized seashell at low tide on Pawleys Island. He spotted a lettered olive as it rolled in the ebb tide. A few days later, he proudly showed me his treasure. I commented that he had found a prime example of the state shell of South Carolina.

“Why does South Carolina have a state shell?” he asked.

A quick internet search revealed that our state shell, the lettered olive (Oliva sayana), was named by a South Carolinian, Dr. Edmund Ravenel of Charleston. It was designated the official state shell by a vote of the South Carolina legislature in 1984.

In that same internet search, we found other designations of state symbols adopted by the state house and senate.

This is a partial listing of some of our more interesting symbols, followed by the adoption date.

  • State amphibian: spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) – The spotted salamander is the only amphibian indigenous to the whole state. It was nominated by a third-grade class at Woodland Heights Elementary School in Spartanburg as the state amphibian. (1999)
  • State animal: white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) – Every county in South Carolina features an open season on deer. (1972)
  • State beverage: Milk was selected as the official beverage of the state because of its dietary value and since dairy farms are found in counties acrorss the state. (1984)
  • State hospitality beverage: tea (Camellia sinensis) – The first place that tea was grown in the United States was in South Carolina in 1799. Tea is still produced on Wadmalaw Island. (1995)
  • State bird: Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) – The wren was chosen as the state bird because its song can be heard all year long. (1948)
  • State wild game bird: wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) – Hunted during a spring season, wild turkeys are found throughout the state. (1976)
  • State duck: wood duck (Aix sponsa) – The wood duck is also known as the summer duck and the Carolina duck. (2009)
  • State butterfly: eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) – English artist Mark Catesby painted this butterfly’s first picture in South Carolina in 1725. (1994)
  • State spider: Carolina wolf spider (Hogna carolinensis) – The state spider was the idea of a third-grade student at Sheridan Elementary School in Orangeburg. (2000)
  • State fish: striped bass or rockfish (Morone saxatilis) – Striped bass can be caught in several large lakes throughout the state. (1972)
  • State flower: yellow jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens) – The return of yellow jasmine each spring is seen throughout South Carolina.
  • State wildflower: goldenrod (Solidago altissima) – With a long bloom time and long-lasting flowers, goldenrod was selected as the official state wildflower.
  • State fruit: peach (Prunus persica) – South Carolina is the second-largest peach producer, behind California and ahead of Georgia. (1984)
  • State snack: boiled peanuts – Boiled peanuts are a popular snack food in the Southern United States.
  • State gemstone: amethyst – South Carolina is one of a few states where good quality amethyst gems can be found. (1969)
  • State stone: blue granite – Many buildings throughout the state have been constructed with blue granite mined here. (1969)
  • State heritage work animal: the mule. (2010)
  • State insect: Carolina mantid (Stagmomantis carolina) –The praying mantis.  (1988)
  • State beetle: seven-spotted ladybug (Coccinella septempunctata) – Both the ladybird beetle and the praying mantis are beneficial insects to the home garden and the farm. (1988)
  • State marine mammal: bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) – Both the state marine mammal and state migratory marine mammal were designated by Act Number 58 of 2009. (2009)
  • State migratory marine mammal: northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) – The right whale can be found off the South Carolina coast during the breeding and calving season. (2009)
  • State reptile: loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) – The loggerhead is a threatened species that nests on South Carolina’s shores. (1988)
  • State craft: sweetgrass basket weaving – Sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes), is native to the coastal dunes of the Carolinas.  It was the perfect material for African slaves to utilize their traditional skills to produce a tightly-woven coiled basket.
  • State dance: shag – The shag was selected as the state dance because it originated in South Carolina. (1984)
  • State popular music: beach music – Beach music is closely associated with the state dance, the shag, and is also considered to have originated in Myrtle Beach. (2001)
  • State motto: Dum spiro spero (While I breathe, I hope). It appears on the state seal and some of the state’s license plates.
  • Our grandson was particularly interested in our state dog: the Boykin Spaniel. It is a small dog with a brown, curly coat and golden eyes. It was bred primarily for waterfowl hunting. The dog is known for its cheerful personality and energy. (1985)
  • State color: indigo blue – The color indigo blue comes from the 2nd South Carolina Regiment’s uniforms. The state flag is indigo blue in remembrance of this regiment. The palmetto tree on the flag recalls Charleston’s successful defense during the American Revolutionary War at a fort built of palmetto logs. (2008)
  • State tree: Sabal palmetto (Sabal palmetto) – The palmetto has been a symbol for South Carolina since the American Revolutionary War when it was used to build a fort on Sullivan’s Island that withstood British attack. The palmetto tree appears on the first symbol of the state, the seal created in 1777. It was officially named the state tree in 1939.

Since today is Palm Sunday, perhaps it is appropriate to say more about the Palmetto Palm, the state tree of South Carolina.

Back in the days before air conditioning, summer evenings in South Carolina were often spent outside. I can recall my grandparents saying after supper, “Let’s go sit in the yard.” Sitting outside was usually accompanied by cold beverages of choice, time for stargazing to identify constellations, plenty of good stories, and other comfort items. Pappy enjoy a good aromatic cigar. Mammy always had a few Palmetto frond fans to pass around.

Each fan was a single palm frond woven into a heart shape used to stir the air and ward off biting insects. I think Mammy also used them to clear Pappy’s cloud of cigar smoke.

The palmetto tree has other uses as well. The bristles on the sheaths of young leaves have been made into scrubbing brushes. The trunks have been used as wharf piles.

The native range of palmetto trees in the United States is the lower East Coast from North Carolina southward to Florida and west along the Gulf Coastal to Texas. The Sabal palmetto grows up to 65 feet tall. The tree is also known as cabbage-palm, cabbage palmetto, Carolina palmetto, and swamp cabbage. There are fifteen species of the palmetto palm. It is salt-tolerant and is often seen growing near both the Atlantic Ocean coast and the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Maintenance of the state tree is easy and adaptable. The palmetto is known to endure drought, standing water, and brackish water. It is highly tolerant of salt winds, but not saltwater flooding. It is considered almost hurricane-proof.

In the Palmetto State, the tree is highly regarded. Our local council of Scouting USA is named the Palmetto Council.  The annual football rivalry game between Clemson and South Carolina is known as the Palmetto Bowl. A silhouette of a palmetto appears on the official flag of the state of South Carolina.

Why is the palmetto tree held in such esteem?

At the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, Colonel William Moultrie took command of Sullivan’s Island on March 2, 1776. Included among his troops was a garrison of 413 soldiers of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment Infantry and twenty-two from the 4th South Carolina Regiment, artillery. The island included a fort still under construction at the southern tip of the island. The blue flag on the southeast bastion had the word Liberty emblazoned upon it.

South Carolina patriots were building Fort Sullivan to guard Charleston Harbor. The fort was constructed of parallel layers of palmetto logs reinforced with sand. British Admiral Sir Peter Parker, with nine British warships, attacked the fort on June 28, 1776.  The soft palmetto logs did not crack under bombardment but rather absorbed the shot. Cannonballs even bounced off the walls of the structure. The day-long battle ended with the heavily damaged British ships being driven from the area. Moultrie was promoted to General, and the fort took its name, as Fort Moultrie, in his honor.

South Carolina’s state seal is made up of two elliptical areas linked by the palmetto tree branches. The image on the left pictures a tall palmetto tree and an oak tree, fallen and broken. This scene represents the battle fought on June 28, 1776, between defenders of the unfinished fort on Sullivan’s Island and the British Fleet. The standing palmetto represents the victorious patriots, and the fallen oak represents the defeated British Fleet.

The Gospels of the New Testament record the events of the first Palm Sunday. Jesus of Nazareth was an itinerate rabbi who had gained popularity and a large following of disciples. He was considered a threat to both the Roman government and the Jewish religious establishment.

On the Sunday before the Jewish Feast of the Passover, he rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives to enter the ancient city of Jerusalem. On the mountainside, he paused briefly to weep over the city. Imagine his legs dangling, his sandaled feet nearly scraping the stone pavement, and tears running into his beard.

Further along, the crowd began praising him. “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They spread their garments before him. They waved branches from date palms.

They anticipated liberation from the Romans. Jesus knew his destiny. This final week of his earthly life will cost him dearly. By Friday, the adoring crowd will be an angry mob, no longer shouting praises. Their voices will have turned to jeers and curses. “Crucify him!”

Imagine this happening in our own time. Can you envision Jesus weeping over cities like ours? Towns like Spartanburg, Boulder, or Saint Paul. Large metropolitan areas like New York and Atlanta. National capitals like Washington, Beijing, Moscow, and Nay Pyi Taw. In my mind’s eye, I can see the crowd waving palm branches and singing with Leonard Cohen “Hallelujah.” And I can see my grandmother, Mammy, weeping with Jesus over a broken world. She is waving a heart-shaped fan woven from a Palmetto Palm frond.

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

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

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