Green-Up Time

Daffodil, close up“Lo, the fair beauty of earth, from the death of the winter arising! Every good gift of the year now with its Master returns!”

– Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (540?-600?)

This year, spring (the Midwestern variety, not just the precession of the equinoxes) arrived in remarkable synchronicity with Easter. The season of Easter, of course, continues for the Great 50 Days. So, if the weather smiles upon us, does spring.

Both seasons are now past their first blush. A few lonely blossoms cling to the half-leafed-out flowering crab outside my bedroom window, and the last of the narcissi have been clipped from the cutting bed out back. But even as a storm front knocks the fragile blossoms from one set of trees, the buds ready themselves to burst on another.

My father calls this “green-up time,” when leaves are new and grass re-grows, and that bright fresh green seen only in early spring is everywhere as the days lengthen recklessly on their way to summer. It’s the season for planting, whether crops, trees, or something in between in terms of permanence. So plant I did.

In fact, the only retail establishments to which I can easily walk from home are nurseries. In fact, there are four of them, three in a row just to the north of me, and one an outlier to the south. I headed out to buy pansies; their cheerful faces always brighten the pots outside my front door, to say nothing of my mood when I see them smiling back at me. On my way to Nursery #2, I noticed a sign at Nursery #1: “$99 trees.”

When this development was in its final stages of construction, someone found cheap white pines and planted them behind the houses. Unfortunately, the white pine doesn’t like our thick clay soil, and it doesn’t care for damp. Ours are planted on the low ground, and soggy roots are an issue. While one of my pines has done all right, the kindest word for the other one was “puny.” It was sick and sad, and largely bereft of needles.

I thought about it as I headed home with my plants and deposited them on my doorstep. Then I headed back to seek a tree, one that wouldn’t mind getting its feet wet.

The nursery man looked for an oak variety he thought would suit, but they were sold out, and the new ones wouldn’t be $99. Then he hit on the river birch, a native of southern Missouri, a practical tree that can deal with flooding. I bought it, and called Jim the Landscaper to take out the old and put in the new.

For a couple of weeks, the birch looked decidedly dead. Last week I saw the first signs of buds, cautious signs, not-quite-sure signs. This week, suddenly, there are thousands of tiny grass-green leaves, each expanding almost as I look.

Planting anything is an act of faith, whether it’s burying bulbs in the late-fall chill or trees by the pale light of early spring. For those of us with short life expectancies, bulbs are the safer bet. I expect to see mine come up several times.

But trees are for the long haul. It may not grow tall enough fast enough for me ever to enjoy its shade, but that’s all right; others will appreciate it in years to come. It is a connection to the future, a bond with God’s earth, and a promise for springs to come.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Easter gladness, Easter joy

HappyBabybyWeirdBeardIt was one of those bright moments that sweetly sums it up, bringing our attention to what’s really important.

At the start of the 9 o’clock service on Easter Day –  after a heroic prelude, the introit responses (“The Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us rejoice and be glad!”), and one of the great hymns of the Church, “Easter Hymn” (non-musicians know it as “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”), sung and played full out by the choir and congregation, brass and organ – there came an unexpected affirmation.

Just as the music began to die away, just as priests and people caught their breath and began to move on to the next (spoken) thing, a tiny girl in the back of the nave shouted out a spontaneous “Yay!” Her joy was palpable and contagious, a perfect non-liturgical reaction for someone experiencing that particular joy for the first time. The congregation laughed in appreciation. The rector said, “We’re going home now,” because, in a sense, it had all been said.

We didn’t, of course, and (without the sermon, anthem, and communion, just for starters) it hadn’t, of course. But it was a useful reminder. After all, we already know the story, how Jesus died and rose again, of his followers’ grief and elation. In that moment, she reminded us that the story is always new.

– Sarah Bryan Miller






Happy Lent!

LentenFare_editedOn my cookery book shelf I’ve got a book of recipes for Lent and Fridays, dating from the 1950s. It’s more than a recipe book; it details Lenten customs and traditions, and the writer makes the point that until very recently most people didn’t have much choice of food in Lent. Not for them the astonishing abundance of food we take for granted all year round; before refrigeration and air transport, you had to eat whatever you could find locally, and at the tail end of winter there wasn’t a lot.

It makes me wonder whether this at least partly explains the mantle of communal gloom which seems to have descended on the Christian world during Lent in times past: theatres closed, opera banned, and when a nineteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury held a (no doubt very decorous) party during Lent there was a public outcry. Lent was expected to be dismal. A lot of people still see it as a time for giving things up rather than taking them up, a time to feel guilty if you’re still eating chocolate (and oh, do I agree with the last contributor to GPN!) or enjoying a glass of wine.

But aren’t we supposed to suffer with Jesus in the wilderness, after all? Well, a carefully undertaken fast (and I’m sure Jesus knew exactly how to do it) can bring great lightness and clarity after the first few uncomfortable days, and it was in those forty days in the desert that Jesus confronted and accepted his vocation and sent Satan packing. Most of us can’t go off into solitude for forty days to wait upon God, but we can decide to spend these days in paying as much attention to God as we can, to ask in the silence of our hearts what he wants of us, what it is in our lives he wants to heal, what it is that he wants to give us power to do for him and for our brothers and sisters, and all the ways he wants us to grow in his service.

Lent should surely be a time of growth, not of grim determination to stick it out until Easter, an inward growing into new life just as the natural world is opening up into new life and greenness as it turns towards the sun. Happy Lent!

– Margaret Z. Wilkins


I’m not much of a gardener; I’m not physically strong, and I can’t take the sun. Besides, I suspect that most plants really don’t much care for me, and would just as soon let go and die as give me the satisfaction of their flourishing.

There are two exceptions. There’s the admirably undiva-ish “Knockout” rose bush, which seems to be virtually unkillable as long as you don’t actually set it on fire, and which even then might come back. The other is the narcissus, hundreds of bulbs of which – jonquils, daffodils, paperwhites, and all their friends and relations – shine every spring on the steep hillside just behind my house.

I buy them by the hundred, in a grab-bag collection called “The Works.” One never knows what the new ones will look like until they bloom, which is part of the appeal. In the autumn, I inveigle my friends into helping me claw shallow graves in the rocky clay soil, then reward them, in spring, with brilliant bouquets of varied blooms. This year, unusually (oh, the issues inherent in holy days built on a lunar calendar!) their flowering coincided with Holy Week and Easter, bringing fresh meaning to themes of rebirth.

I used to be rather rigid about what daffs should be: big monochromatic yellow flowers with big monochromatic yellow trumpets. Then I bought my first bag of mixed bulbs and discovered the greater beauty of diversity.

Some of them are tiny; some are enormous. They come in plain vanilla versions or with ruffles, white petals and red trumpets, yellow petals and orange trumpets, delicate little blossoms and big assertive ones, short and tall, surprising and delightful. They bloom for weeks, from the earliest pale ghost of spring until blazing summer.

Diversity is one of God’s gifts, and we miss a lot when everything’s alike. It’s true for flowers, landscapes – and people. Thanks be to God, who opened my eyes to the beauty of differences.

– sbm