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Dogwood candles

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It's fun to watch 6-year-olds deal with the concept of spring starting on a particular day. They think something magical is going to happen--all the flowers will burst forth, the temperature will suddenly jump. But the heavens and the trees don't give a hoot about March 20th, the official start date for spring, and kids everywhere are left to wonder what it's all about.

By coincidence, March 20 was the day I went to my daughter's first grade class to do a little planting project. The bushes we were going to plant had no leaves and no roots, but I assured the students that they would grow. That would have to be magic enough to fill the gap between this most ordinary day and the far grander work of their imaginations.

The activity is by now pretty standard. A couple of big plastic tubs--the cut off ends of a donated 55 gallon drum--stand ready outside the classroom. After some discussion about the things plants need to grow, the kids do their best to shovel schoolyard dirt into the tubs. When they're filled to the brim, we add water to turn the dirt into glorious mud. Finally, each kid takes a freshly cut section of stem from one or another native shrub that grows along Ellerbe Creek in Durham--silky dogwood, buttonbush, elderberry--and sticks it deep into the ooze.

This time, though, about when we had 20 stems in each tub, the kids began singing "Happy Birthday." Now the grown-ups were left wondering. In the eyes of the first graders, the tubs of brown mud with sticks pointing up had taken on the look of birthday cakes with chocolate frosting and candles. "Happy birthday, silky dogwood. Happy birthday to you."

In a week or two, the buds on the sticks will open, and the buried portions will sprout roots in the mud. By fall, Forest View Elementary will have 40 shrubs to plant on the school grounds. But more importantly, the kids got to dig the good earth, to learn which way's up on a buttonbush sprig and, best of all, they found meaning in the day. A birthday for spring--maybe that's what March 20 is really all about.

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