The Voice of the Turtle

  Jerome Shea       April 11, 2009      Weekend Wonk

Spring and Easter have come ‘round again, and good on that. Easter, of course, is the culmination of the Christian calendar, its most important feast, much more important than Christmas. Christmas gets the ball inexorably rolling but it is with Easter, with Christ’s resurrection from the dead, that a Christian can crow, “See, we TOLD you he was the Son of God!”

What is also appropriate about Easter, which really did occur in the spring as far as we know, is that Christ’s resurrection becomes the ultimate symbol of renewal, of death and rebirth, of new life. This is why the Church co-opted earlier spring festivals, most notably the Anglo-Saxon celebration of the goddess Eostre, in order to win converts. Eostre had a special regard for the hare, and of course eggs have been a symbol for fertility since, well, since we’ve had the egg (which may or may not have preceded the chicken). That’s why this Sunday, oblivious to millennia-long history, kids will be eagerly hunting Easter eggs and scarfing down marshmallow bunnies.

The Song of Solomon gives us a wonderful evocation of spring. Everyone knows Chapter 2:11,12:

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear upon the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

Oh, what consternation that turtle used to give me! The voice of the turtle that I knew as a kid was a very unattractive hissing. But of course the authors of the King James Bible meant the turtledove (well, why couldn’t they just say so?), a small wild pigeon with a very mellifluous call. It is certainly a beautiful passage. You can sense the relief, the yearning fulfilled: life begins again.

Just as Lent lets us “earn” Easter, winter (death) lets us earn spring (life). And lately, because of global warming or whatnot, we really are earning it. Both winters and summers are getting more punishing. Here in Albuquerque the winters are relatively mild. We usually have just a dusting of snow, and nighttime temperatures seldom drop into the teens. We do have our notoriously unrelenting spring winds, but I would never have the temerity to complain to someone from, say, North Dakota. In the Midwest and the East they seem to dig out from one massive snowstorm just in time to be battered by another, and then another. Roofs collapse. Desperately they sandbag river banks and hold their collective breath. For a change of pace there are ice storms that knock out electric power for days. Unbelievable.

The most wonderful evocation of spring that I know comes from E. L. Doctorow’s remarkable first novel, Welcome to Hard Times. Here it is:

I stepped outside into that new morning and I couldn’t believe it. The sun filled my eyes with a warmth of hazes, pink, pale green and yellow, and all over the flats white mists were rising like winter being steamed out of the ground. I swore I could feel the earth turning. Everything was new in my sight. I looked around at the short street of buildings—cabin, windmill, saloon, tent and stable—it seemed like a row of plants just sprung. The Chinese girl peeked out of the saloon, holding her hand up against the brilliance and I waved to her. A few minutes later everyone was out of doors, blinking in the sunlight, standing silent in the face of something that was hard to remember. Then Jenks gave a hoot and threw his hat into the air and all of a sudden everyone was stretching, calling out, Zar went around hugging everybody, Adah was shaking Isaac Maple’s hand, the girls were kissing each other, Jimmy was holding Molly’s arm and pulling her this way and that. Jenks went into his stable and drove the horses out, there was much mingling, we were all smiling like fools, we were all pasty and thin in the fresh light but alive even so.

That, my friends, is the spring that springs eternal.

Postscript. Not every one is sanguine about the spring. Edna St. Vincent Millay wasn’t.

It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers

I guess she was having a bad day. Poor Edna had many of them.

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