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April 4, 1983
Eggs on End
Bill McKibben

By nature, we list slightly toward skepticism. So when Donna Henes told us of her plan to fire off fifty-two highway-emergency flares and stand three hundred and sixty eggs on end while chanting all in the name of world peace, we may have rolled our eyes a little. We may even have said to ourself "Hmmm." But if we did we were wrong. Our report follows:

Donna chose the date and hour for her ceremony with care. On March 20th at twenty-one minutes before midnight, the sun would cross the equator, ushering spring into our hemisphere. At that precise moment of vernal equinox-and only at that moment–hens' eggs could be balanced on their fat end, or so Donna assured us. Donna, a thirty-seven-year-old woman who is by profession what she describes as an "artist and ritual maker" and who is committed to international harmony, also put a lot of thought into selecting the proper site for the event, which she has presided over at various sites for six straight years. Finally, this February, she hit on Ralph J. Bunche Park, at Forty-second Street and First Avenue "It turns out to be the perfect place,' she said––perfect because it is right across from the United Nations, perfect because it is in the shadow of the Isaiah Wall, with its famous chiseled rendering of the "swords into plowshares" line, and perfect because a tall modernistic sculpture by Daniel LaRue Johnson, "Peace Form One," which dominates the park, provides a good surface for balancing eggs. "You wouldn't believe how hard it is to' find a nice platform in Manhattan," Donna said.

Surprisingly, Donna didn't spend much time selecting the eggs, which were donated by the Jersey Coast Egg Producers. "When I first did this, I thought you obviously had to use organic eggs. But it turned out you didn't," Donna said. She added that she has no dreaming idea why eggs balance at the moment of the equinox. "They just do, is all. I've had friends tell me you can even use eggs right out of the fridge. They don't even have to be room temperature."

We joined Donna and a crowd of close to a hundred like-minded souls at the park shortly after eleven, when winter had twenty minutes left to blow and thrash. At first, it felt a little chilly, but then––perhaps it was only our imagination––we seemed to notice that the breeze carried no edge. If anything, there was a breathy touch of warmth. Still, it was a long way from being hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.

During the wait for the equinox, some members of the milling company made music. We counted two ocarinas, two saxophones, one sleigh bell, one harmonica, four tin whistles, and one tambourine. "This is an instrument sort of event," said one man with an ocarina, who could also play two recorders simultaneously, out of the two sides of his mouth. A couple of people shared a joint, but most were content to sniff a small vial of "Yandi's Peace Oil" which was circulating from hand to hand. 'A bearded, overalled man shouted several times "New York City is a playground! New York City is a playground!" but then he was distracted by a boxer dog, which he petted ferociously, all the while crooning "Nice pussycat, nice pussycat." The more industrious in the crowd scrawled peace messages on thin strips of orange plastic and tied them to the iron railings that bordered the park. Several hundred of these "peace streamers" flapped in the breeze, our favorite slogans included "World Friendship! Let's Have It Now, Hurray! Why Not? Let's Go!," "Learn to Play Nice, Stop Playing Rough," "The Universe Spreads Out Before Us, Ineffably Profound," and "If Peace Comes to the Earth, Donna Will Be Largely Responsible."

Speaking of Donna, she was at this point preoccupied with the flares, one for each week of the year, which she set off shortly after eleven-thirty. Then, in the orange glow, she distributed eggs from a laundry basket. "You have to promise you won't try to balance them until the right moment––until eleven-thirty-nine," she said as she parceled the eggs out. The wait was tense–partly because of a debate between members of the crowd about the correct time. "My watch is always right and my watch says eleven-thirty-three," one man insisted. Finally at more or less eleven-thirty-nine, Donna–who had been softly chanting her peace chant for several minutes–knelt down next to the flat base of the statue, cradled an egg in her hands for perhaps thirty seconds, until it was steady, and then slowly pulled her hands away. The egg stood bolt upright. "Spring is here," Donna said happily. Everyone in the crowd, us included, got busy balancing eggs. Honest to God, it worked. We got our egg to stand steady on our first try, and all around us others met with similar success. An egg on end is a wondrous, disorienting sight, and a few hundred eggs on end in the flickering light of several dozen flares, left us strangely delighted. We wandered slowly around the park for a long time, watching people balance white eggs and brown eggs, eggs that had been daubed with peace oil and eggs that were being serenaded by ocarinas. Some people balanced eggs on the pavement and some on the thin iron railing. One especially proficient balancer told us his parents had been married on the equator. Another man, dodging cars, stood an egg up on a traffic stripe of First Avenue, where it remained proudly upright until it was sideswiped by a Checker cab. At eleven fifty-four, a gust of wind knocked over a number of eggs, but most were righted fairly easily. The magic of the equinox works for some time on either side of the actual moment, Donna explained as she rubberstamped the eggs of participants with the legend "THIS EGG STOOD UP, 3/20/83."

After more than an hour, we left for home, still marveling, but also a little bothered by the words of a young physics student who had happened by the event. "I don't think there's anything to it. I think it's all a matter of rough surfaces, or something. I think it's just a joke," he had said. So the next morning we set ourself to finding out. Consultations with several scientists and mathematicians proved inconclusive–none had heard of the phenomenon and none could think of any, reason that equinoxes should affect egg stability, though one did point out that water drains out of washbasins in different directions depending on which side of the equator the washbasin stands on. Eventually we were referred to James (The Amazing) Randi, who resides in New Jersey, earns his keep as a magician, and has lately gained considerable fame by raining on other people's parades––mostly people who in his opinion pass off conjuring tricks as miracles. In this case, Randi declared, we were mistaking the mundane, not even the magic, for the meaningful. "You can balance an egg any time–at eleven this morning, or a week from Monday. Any surface that's the least bit rough will do for balancing an egg. And there are a dozen ways to fake it––you can just crack the egg a little bit on the bottom for instance." Though Randi said he'd never heard of the equinox ritual, he added. "It probably got started the same way the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus did-old wives tales."

Well, Randi is very likely right he is, after all, amazing. And we certainly can't explain why eggs should be willing to balance at the moment of the vernal equinox. But this we do know–we balanced our egg fair and square in about fifteen seconds on March 20th at 11:39 P.M. Two days later, at three-thirty in the afternoon, we stopped at Kane's Delicatessen, at Second Avenue and Forty-fourth Street, and picked up 1 dozen Grade A large eggs. We carried them to Ralph J. Bunche Park–to the very spot at the base of the statue where we had been two days before. For twenty minutes, we tried to balance one of our eggs, stopping only to explain to curious diplomatic observers what we were about. Again and again, we cradled it tenderly, held it absolutely still, began to pull our hands away, and watched it roll gently onto its side.

The trouble may have been that we didn't want the egg to balance–that we wished to see Donna Henes proved right. Something she had said to us shortly after the equinox kept running through our mind. "When I hold an egg at just that moment," she had said, "I feel as if the whole universe were in the palm of my hand. And when it balances, when it stands there, it's very calming. I feel so protected. It's as if the whole universe were working fine."
 
 

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