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Morris Men perform rite of spring on Lantern Hill

By Anna Isaacs

Publication: theday.com

Published March 20. 2014 12:00PM   Updated March 20. 2014 11:55PM
Anna Isaacs/The Day
The Westerly Morris Men greet the sunrise, albeit shrouded in fog, this morning on the summit of Lantern Hill in North Stonington.
Westerly group greets the new season with traditional English dances amid daybreak fog

North StoningtonMost of us wait passively for spring, if impatiently, crossing off calendar days, grumbling over electric bills, forgoing jackets on the days when 40 degrees feels balmy.

But the Westerly Morris Men rush to greet the season with bells on — literally.

For the 28th year running, the Morris Men made their annual trek to the top of Lantern Hill in the minutes before dawn Thursday, joined by an audience of a couple dozen — a mixed crowd of devotees and first-timers — to usher in the sunrise of the first day of spring with traditional English song and dance.

Geoff Sewall, 74, of Charlestown, R.I., was the first to arrive around 5:30 a.m., having set his alarm for 4:10.

Though not new to the hike — this is a trail he often takes with his hiking group, or with his daughter for mid-winter strolls — this was to be his first vernal equinox with the Morris Men, whom he’s performed with for years as part of the Chorus of Westerly’s annual celebration of Twelfth Night.

He came, he said, for his granddaughters ages 4 and 7, whose mother called him the day before to inform him it was likely he’d have to carry one of them.

“We’ll see how that goes,” he said.

As the silhouettes of still-bare trees came into relief against the slowly lightening sky, a few began the climb early, flashlight beams disappearing over the first steep heel that juts up from the trailhead on a curve of Wintechog Hill Road.

Others joined, seeming to ascend into the fog, punctuating an unsteady drizzle with the squish of mud underfoot.

At the top, a short 15-minute hike, the Morris Men stretched, their audience sipped coffee and strained to make out the view. On a clear day, it’s trees for miles, but on this particular morning, there was little to see past the outcrop of quartz except a thick, pale haze.

Peter Leibert, the group’s founder and musician, gave brief history lessons between numbers — quaint country dances with plenty of skipping, kerchief-twirling, and clacking of wooden staffs. Besides the straps of dozens of tiny bells around the dancers’ shins and the occasional singing — or, rather, enthusiastic shouting — the only music came from Leibert’s accordion, accompanying every song.

Their outfits — called Morris kits, Leibert said — feature green from top to bottom, bowler hats rimmed with ribbons and vests plastered with buttons from fairs, events, and competitions the group has performed in over the years.

The bells accentuate rhythm, perhaps dispel bad spirits.

And the dancing itself was once a ritual to ensure a fertile spring, he said, before offering an even simpler explanation:

“We dance because we have a good time,” Leibert said.

Sometime around 10 minutes to 7, someone called out, “Sun’s up” — the only visible cue that the wall of mist had lightened from blue to gray.

And with two final dances and raucous applause, the group began their descent.

Daniel and Jocelyn Rzewuski, 40 and 37, also of Charlestown, have come to welcome spring this way a handful of times now. Both are experienced hikers. He scales Mt. Washington at least twice annually; she made her first summit last year.

But more than the first hike of the season, they like the idea of an old tradition preserved, kept alive.

“There’s something romantic about that,” he said.

a.isaacs@theday.com

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