March Fat Pole

Our beloved camp storyteller, Chuck Stead, recalls a unique vernal equinox tradition…

I had long known about Winter and Summer Solstice. Winter Solstice is the longest night and Summer Solstice is the longest day. Celebrations on Winter Solstice involve lighting a fire and gathering around it and such, as you ‘light the night’ for the Sun to find its way back. Celebrations for Summer Solstice involved staying up all night (it being the shortest night of the year) and welcoming the return of the lengthening night. But Uncle Mal now told us there was also ‘Equinox’: in the Fall it was called Autumnal Equinox, celebrating the harvest, and in the Spring it was a Vernal Equinox to celebrate the awakening of life in the earth. So, there were four points on the calendar. At Winter Solstice was the longest night; at Summer was the shortest night…but what of the Equinox times?

Ricky Cramshaw, Cindy Maloney, and I were sitting in the Paint Shop watching Uncle Mal wind his wrist watch. Our dads all had pocket watches, but Mal was a wrist watch sort of fellow. He was talking about the Vernal Equinox that was coming up in a few days. I had just said, “But I don’t think anybody does anything for it.”

Mal looked at me and said, “Oh, well, maybe not much anymore, but there was a time…”. He looked out the dirty shop windows, toward the western sky and said, “They put up a May Pole down in the Fountain Yard and then they’d get the kids to dance around it, dipping in and out and around each other, braiding these long colored ribbons, until they go around enough times that the whole pole is braided with the ribbons!”

Cindy said, “But Uncle Mal, the Vernal Equinox is in March and the pole you talk about is a May Pole. Isn’t that on May Day?”

Mal looked at her and said, “Well, yeah, you got me there…but the point is, folks in the old-time community used to be more sensitive to the coming season. Vernal Equinox and May Day were times of community gathering.”

Ricky said, “So what do we do on Equinox Day?”

Mal looked at his watch and said, “Well sir, if we lived out West in the flat-lands, on Equinox you can set your watch because Sunrise and Sunset happen exactly at 6 a.m. and at 6 p.m. And if you stay up all night, from 6 p.m. when sunsets, it’ll rise pretty much at 6 a.m. the next day too!”

Ricky said, “So day and night are equal in length, just 12 hours each?”

“Yes, they are, but then the day starts getting longer and the night shorter.”

Ricky said, “But we don’t live in the flatlands.”

‘No sir, we don’t.”

“Them flatlanders sure are lucky.”

Uncle Mal said, “I don’t think so, I like to have some hills around me.”

Cindy said, “So, what sort of thing do we do on Vernal Equinox?”

I said, “We could do the May Pole?”

Cindy shook her head and said, “But that’s for May.”

Ricky said, “Then let’s do a March Pole!”

Uncle Mal asked him, “And what would you wrap around it?”

“Licorice!”

I said, “No! That’s a waste of good licorice!”

He said, “Then let’s wrap the pole with bad licorice!”

Mal said, “Tell you what. We’ll put a pole in the ground and nail some suet to it.”

“What?”

“You know, some hard chunk of mutton fat.”

I said, “You want to make a March Fat Pole?”

He said, “This time of year, with spring not really kicked in yet, the birds could use a little help. We can put up a pole and nail some suet cakes to it and that’ll give the birds a little something to hold them over. Then come April the bugs start coming around and the worms start showing up, so our March Pole can be for the birds. What do you say?”

We agreed. Mal looked around in the shop and found an eight-foot wooden rod. We climbed into his truck and rode down to the feed store at Ramsey. He bought three suet cakes that were packed with bird seed and nuts. We rode back up to the Paint Shop and Mal picked out a spot in the back near the tracks, where he dug into the ground about a foot and a half deep. He nailed the three suet cakes to the pole, and then we gathered some broken rock near the tracks and dumped them into the hole, once he had stood the pole there. He patted down some dirt and more gravel around the base of the pole. We felt it. It was firm.

For the next few days whenever we could, we would go visit our March Fat Pole. Every time we came to it, we saw all kinds of birds feeding on it: sparrows, juncos, jays, cardinals, robins, and starlings. On March 22nd (which was Vernal Equinox that year) we found a Downy Woodpecker there pecking away at the suet/seed cake. Ricky ran to the pole and danced around it singing a March Fat Pole song he made up. Then, when we went there the next day, all three suet cakes were torn to pieces and all over the muddy ground were lots of raccoon tracks. The tracks were clear and fresh. We pressed our fingers into the tracks and closed our eyes. It was believed that this was a way to learn what the raccoons were thinking. We hunkered down quietly with our fingers pressed into the raccoon tracks. After a bit Ricky announced that he got a message of raccoon thoughts. He said to us, “Yummy, good suet on this stick!”

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