(This column was first published in the March 11, 2002 Buffalo News.)
This coming weekend will be a tough one on wildlife.
On Sunday we celebrate the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, with parades, three-leafed clovers called shamrocks in buttonholes, and "the wearing of the green" as my Irish friends would have it. Originally celebrated as a Catholic holy day, St. Patrick's Day has become a largely secular holiday today with political overtones. Only Orangemen dissent.
Born Maewyn in Wales in about 385 A.D., the future St. Patrick was kidnapped and enslaved by a marauding tribe of his own countrymen. He escaped to France where he converted to Christianity before returning to Ireland to spread his new faith. He was remarkably successful, establishing Catholic schools, churches and monasteries throughout the land, all this despite being imprisoned several times by the Celtic Druids whose faith his was replacing. We celebrate this saint on the day of his death, March 17, 461.
St. Patrick deserves a place in this natural history column because he is said to have given a sermon from a hilltop that rid Ireland of its snakes. Purists argue that this was reasonably easy because there is no record whatsoever of any snakes ever having lived on that island and most scholars now agree that the saint only used this as a metaphor for conversion of pagans.
Whatever the meaning, our snakes once again get a bad press.
Orthopterans don't do too well this coming weekend either.
Far less well known -- and with good reason -- is another saint, the Finnish St. Urho -- that name pronounced "oorlho" with those first o's gargled. He too is said to have been tough on wildlife. He was supposed to have used his "splendid and loud voice" to drive the locusts out of his pre-Ice Age Finland when the climate was much milder there. According to the legend, Urho is supposed to have shouted, "Heinasirkka, heinasirkka, meine taatta hiiteen," which translates as "Grasshopper, grasshopper, get out of here." (Finnish linguists may question that rendering.) At any rate, his robust voice was supposed to have saved the grape harvest.
Despite my never having heard of him before, I now understand that March 16, the day before St. Patrick's Day, is officially recognized as St. Urho's Day in all fifty of the United States. Whether or not that is true, this holiday is certainly celebrated in parts of Minnesota. In fact there are two large statues of St. Urho on display there.
The first, a 12-foot effigy showing him skewering a giant grasshopper on the tines of a pitchfork, stands outside the village of Menahga. To protect it from damage the original 1982 chain-saw carving is stored in a local cemetery mausoleum and a fiberglass replica replaces it at the side of Highway 71.
Not to be outdone and quite appropriately, the village of Finland, Minn., has its own statue of St. Urho. Originally planned to be 30 feet tall, the wooden block to be carved was found to be rotten and the figure had to be reduced to the 18 feet of good wood available. On this totem pole-like carving only Urho's long narrow head appears but with a grasshopper in his hat.
I have only seen pictures of this statue but friends who have visited it tell me that they prefer the one across Highway 1 from it. The other carving displays a fish holding a beer keg -- another of nature's oddities.
It even appears that these two wildlife opponents are related. Many now believe that the St. Urho legend was concocted at a wild St. Patty's Day party in 1956.-- Gerry Rising