Thursday, May 1, 2008

It is now, officially, Spring.

Fair reader, let it be know that it is officially Spring. The Morris has been danced.

It is almost impossible to explain to someone why I woke up at 3:30am this morning, dressed silently and slipped out of the house in the pre-dawn dark to drive out to Picnic Point with my old friend Lisa (who eats paste), where we hiked for 20 minutes through the twilight just to watch a "silly" folk dance. Trust me, I've tried. I took almost devilish delight in making my strange explanations to friends and co-workers just so I could see the odd, dumbfounded look on their faces. "You're gonna do what? Why? What kind of dancing?"

In case you are wondering, and I know you are, Morris Dancing is a folk dance that was old when Shakespeare was still writing. It involves a "side" of six dancers whose dances are performed with oak sticks that they beat together in rhythm or long white handkerchiefs that they wave about as they go. The best part, however, are the bells they wear strapped below their knees which jingle in time with their steps. It's rather comforting to know that when you attend these events, you will never have to worry about a Morris Dancer sneaking up on you. Traditionally, the most important dance of the year is done at sunrise on May 1st, the old first day of Spring. If the Morris is not danced and if nobody is there to watch it, Spring will not come. This is very true.

I am a reasonable man and an empiricist. I believe in truth, fact and evidence, but I also believe that if the Morris is not danced, and someone is not there to watch it, the seasons will not change. I believe this because their has to be an exception to the rule. I believe this because everyone should believe in something that isn't true, if for no other reason than as an exercise. I believe this because "A little madness in the spring is wholesome even for the King." I believe this because cynical bastards are inevitably drawn to whimsy and absurdity to ease their soul.

I'm not a particularly big fan of folk dancing. I'm a big fan of folk music, but not dancing. I am, however a big fan of Terry Pratchett, whom I consider something of a inspiration and teacher. I am particularly a big fan of his books Reaper Man and Wintersmith, in which Morris dancing feature quite prominently. I have also been know to have custom with some of the more benevolent Old Gods when it suited my purpose and I do believe that respect should be paid. While I am nominally a philosophical Taoist, I think that all agrarian religions should stick together somewhat and I do consider myself a "pagan" under the blanket term. Besides, I love a good party and I've been wanting to drag my ass to a May 1st morning Morris dance since I first found out about Oakapple Morris five years ago. Now that I live in Madison, I figured I really have no excuses.

After a few wrong turns and a quick, lakeside cartographic consult, we found the parking lot and spotted Morris Dancers in their spring plumage heading up a darkened path. We grabbed our flashlights and with my trusty walking stick, we headed up the path onto Picnic Point.

After about 20 minutes of hiking and a few breathless moments we arrived at the end of the point to find folks already gathering and a fire already burning in the ring. It's right about there that I started wishing I'd brought some bakery items to share.

We were greeted warmly by Oakapple's accordion player and her ever-so-lovable puppy Angel. We spent a few minutes talking to everyone as we waited for the sun to rise. Somewhere in there, Lisa (who eats paste) got talked into keeping a leash on Angel. Hardly a horrible task for such a sweet puppy.

There is something really rather gratifying about being up that early in the morning. I've always been a sunrise person (though more from working on third shift than anything) and you could not ask for a more beautiful setting than a tiny spit of land, out in the middle of a beautiful lake, campfire burning, sun rising, a beautiful panorama of the capitol buildings in the background.

Finally, at the appropriate time, the dancing began.

There is something so wonderfully absurd about Morris dancing. What can you say about a dance that incorporates such characters as the "Fool" or "Betty", which is a big hairy guy wearing a lovely pink dress...

.. who danced his way back...

...and forth through the dancers without getting smacked by a big oak stick,

... and a "Hobby", which is usually a horse but, given that this is Wisconsin, around here, it's a cow.

I have always suspected that it's so much more fun to DO than to watch. But it's the absurdity of the whole affair that drew everyone together. "Here we stand, in the cold, at 5:30 in the morning, watching a bunch of people with bells on, waving handkerchiefs in the air." It's at that point that you realize that there is NO WAY for you to look cool doing this, so you stop trying, relax and enjoy yourself all the more for it. The funny part was watching the morning joggers running up the path, into the clearing, looking around with a puzzled expression and running right back out again.

After the side had completed their performance and received their meet of applause, we settled in for the traditional May 1st activity of gilding the Maypole (with reminders by me of what a Maypole supposedly represents, I just can't help myself, I'm 12.)...

... with musical accompaniment.

Afterwards we gathered around the fire for some traditional semi-bawdy folk songs and the burning of the "winter witch" as our symbolic last goodbyes to Winter. Then we headed out, having earned, as it were, our breakfast.

On the way home, denied my breakfast companion by the cruel march of time and the demands of corporate America, I stopped off for a breakfast bun and a bottle of juice before returning home and seeking my bed. As I walked across the parking lot, I couldn't help but be drawn to the sound of birds chirping. It seemed the sun shined a little brighter, the air was a little sweeter and the breeze a little warmer. Inside, I had to stand behind some poor, hectic executroid who was stressing about the dietary content of his decaf macchiato. I had this terrible urge to drag him outside, point at the sky and remind him... It's SPRING. Relax. Take the day off. Go fishing, go hiking, go sit in the grass with a six-pack and get drunk.

It's Spring, after a long winter, and today the world is full of potential.

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