How Green is Your March?
March has only two real holidays, both of them commonly associated with the color green. The first day of Spring comes in March, and we have every reason to expect the world to turn green. In Memphis, though, you can't count on that. Statistically, it is as likely to snow on March 20 as on any day of winter. If the neighborhood does not turn not white from snow in March, the Bradford pear trees will produce enough white blossoms to make it look like snowfall. At the same time, the wonderful old post oaks in the south grow long fuzzy catkins in the Spring, and they are capable of producing enough pollen paint your car yellow if you park under one. Green will simply have to wait.
The most dependable signs of Spring are the migrations. Our little juncos and red-winged blackbirds will be heading north, along with those other snow-birds, the folks from along the U. S./Canada border, who have been keeping warm in Florida all winter. You'll see them on the interstate, chugging along in their overloaded motor homes. Another migration path leads south in March – northern college students on Spring Break. You'll want to avoid them on the highways, too. There will be a vertical migration as well. Do you want to know how close Spring really is? Check to see how far down in the dirt you have to dig to find an earthworm. Their migrations may only cover a distance of six inches or so, but when they start to stick their wormy little heads up in your garden, Spring is definitely here.
If you are Irish, or want an excuse to behave like an Irishman, you'll want to deck yourself out in the brightest green outfit you can find on March 17th. Just one word of warning. When I was a kid, my Scotch-Irish mother boasted to me that her family came from Northern Ireland, where the people were Orangemen (supporters of the 18-century Protestant claimant to the English throne, William of Orange). So I went off to school proudly wearing my new tangerine-colored sweater on March 17. Not a good idea!
What about St. Patrick's Day? If you happen to be in New England, you may notice that small towns dye their rivers green for the day. In Memphis, you can drop by Silky Sullivan's down on Beale Street and have a green beer. Everyone you meet will claim to come from Ireland. And you'll need to be up-to-date on your knowledge of all things Irish, like blarney stones, leprechauns and shamrocks.
St. Patrick was real enough, although he was a pagan, came from Wales rather than Ireland, and was named Maewyn. His first trip to Ireland occurred when he was captured by Irish marauders and carried off as a slave at the age of 16. After 6 years, he escaped and made his way to Auxerre in Gaul, where he studied at a monastery and adopted Christianity. He returned to Ireland as a bishop and spent some 30 years fighting with the local Druids and converting the population to Christianity.
Legend has it that he drove the snakes out of Ireland. True enough, there are no snakes there. But, then, there never have been. The island broke away from the continent well before the last Ice Age, and snakes never managed to make the swim to re-establish themselves. My guess is that when Patrick promised to drive the snakes out of Ireland, he was actually casting an ugly slur on the Druids, who were pagan priests – "the little snakes!"
Leprechauns are also problematic. We all know what they look like – about three feet tall, old and ugly, with pointed ears and a pointed cap to match. They smoke long-stemmed pipes, make shoes, and hide pots of gold under rainbows. They are anti-social, tricksters, thieves, and creators of mayhem in the middle of the night. They like to get drunk on a homebrew called poteen and as a result usually have pink-tipped noses. There are no female leprechauns, but I'm not going to touch the problem of how they make new baby leprechauns! They are associated with St. Patrick because they are elves and therefore join the group of folks Patrick wanted to run out of the island. Patrick's connection with shamrocks is better-grounded in fact. He used the native three-leafed plant to explain the nature of the Trinity and adopted the shamrock as his badge. Despite the pictures you'll see, leprechauns probably do not hide under shamrocks.
There is a real Blarney Stone, and Irish legend says that if you kiss it, you will be rewarded with the gift of eloquence. The stone itself is located on the third story of Blarney Castle, just northwest of the village of Cork. To kiss the stone, you must sit with your back to it, lean backwards (with someone holding your feet), and lower your head down a crack between two stone walls. They tell me there are iron rails to hold onto, but I think I'd rather just remain green with envy for those who speak with honeyed tongues.