In Fairfield County, the blooming of the dogwood trees is the harbinger of spring. Whereas the calendar can lie and give us late snows or early frosts, the dogwoods don’t bloom until they’re good and ready to be sprung.
The flowering of the dogwoods has always signaled the time to plant crops — or, in my family, the time to buy more grass seed. Dogwood trees are a Walsh family tradition, planted in an attempt to distract the eye from the crabgrass and dandelions that make up the bulk of our lawns. “Look at my pretty flowers,” the trees seem to whisper, “and ignore the knee-high clumps of onion grass that surround me.”
The Walshes have never been known for our green thumbs. However, our lawns become rock stars for the first two weeks in May as our dogwoods unravel in arboreal splendor. Sometimes they even cover that last string of Christmas lights I haven’t quite gotten to.
The wood of the dogwood tree is tightly grained and silica-free, making it useful when working with delicate objects because it does not scratch or wear things down. The wood has been used for everything from forks and spoons to golf club heads and crochet hooks. Native Americans used the wood to fashion arrow shafts and daggers, and in the 1800s 90% of harvested dogwoods were used in weaving machines for the textile industry.
As a child, I was told two stories about the origin of the dogwood tree. The first came from my parents, who told me that at one time the dogwood trees grew taller than any other tree in the forest. After Jesus was crucified on a cross made from a dogwood tree, however, God twisted its branches and never let the dogwood grow high enough to build another. Each flower was forever shaped in the form of a cross with a small red mark at the tip to signify the rusted nails.
At Indian Guides, they told us a decidedly different tale. They shared the legend of a beautiful Cherokee girl who refused the advances of a Native American warrior. The angry suitor stabbed her, and she used dogwood blossoms to stem the blood as she lay dying. Since that day dogwood trees with white flowers are called Cherokee Princesses, their red tips a reminder of the maiden’s untimely demise.
When I protested to the Wampum Bearer that my dad, Big Bald Eagle, had told us a different story, the Wampum Bearer pointed out that dogwood trees didn’t grow in Palestine. Period. It was the first realization that I’d fallen victim to the White Man’s lies. Like the berries of the dogwood that grow in autumn, my dad’s words had proven poisonous. It was a pattern that would continue with his lies about Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the possibility that the Mets would one day be better than the Yankees.
As a child, the Dogwood Festival in Fairfield marked the official date upon which school students stopped caring about school and starting thinking about how to spend summer vacation. The Dogwood Bazaar on the grounds of Timothy Dwight Elementary School was a place where young love blossomed — it was the first event where we were encouraged to ask someone on a date. I asked Michelle in sixth grade and spent the princely sum of $7 on her, not including the goldfish toss. That bought me a few fleeting moments of holding her hand on the Rocket Ship and the reputation of being too poor to ask girls on a date. Sadly, my reputation was well-earned all the way through graduate school.
It is rare when one feels completely at home, but walking on a street surrounded by blossoming dogwood trees has always grounded me in my Connecticut roots. Like the dogwood blooms themselves, these moments are fleeting yet beautiful reminders of how lucky we are to so fully experience the four seasons in all their glory.
You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him a rob@RobertFWalsh.net or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.