Are Maine Gardeners Crazy?
I think the time has come to inquire seriously into whether gardening in Maine might be a symptom — or perhaps a cause — of mental instability.
Yes, I know: gardening is usually thought to be a healthful, centering kind of activity, a nice way of reconnecting with the natural world. And maybe in the end you get a few edible tomatoes out of it, or some flowers to stick in a vase for the dining table. One thinks of the Obama girls rooting about in the organic celery bed. One smiles fondly. But the Obama girls don't live in Maine.
Here in Maine, everywhere I go, I see people gardening with a level of commitment and intensity that is daunting to me, a recovering Southerner. In the South, you see, the summer heat is so awful that — speaking somewhat figuratively — we stay on the veranda from about mid-June onward, a cool drink never far from our weary grasp. Mainers are not capable of such indolence. At the first hint of seasonal warmth they fling open the doors and rush outside with all the deadly implements of horticulture in hand. (At which point they are devoured by flying insects. The end.)
Seriously, though. Consider what we must contend with up here. We have no topsoil, to start with. (It left town with the last glacier and ended up on Long Island.) We have a growing season roughly 22 days long. Such sunlight as may chance to fall — I'm speaking purely from memory now — tends to be of a hazy, dreamy sort, perfect for photography, less than ideal for the kind of plants we actually want to grow. And then an early frost strikes everything down, winter finishes off the survivors, and we face another, if you will, "spring" with little to show but mud, sweat, and tears.
Under these circumstances, otherwise sane people may be driven to extremes. And this is where the craziness comes in.
From a diagnostic standpoint, the aberrant mental state associated with Maine gardening is hard to pin down because it takes such varied, creative and entertaining forms. I've blogged before about my friend Doug who, eschewing all efforts at organized planting, has instead carved a replica of the labyrinth in the cathedral at Chartres into the field outside his house in Belfast. This thing must be 80 feet in diameter, adorned with a couple of megaliths. It has its own parking area for visiting pilgrims. He maintains it by treading the paths lugging a monstrous Husqvarna weed-whacker.
Then there is my friend Lorie who, in a climate chiefly suitable for slime mold, has resolved to grow, on a commercial scale, more than a dozen types of lavender, including some specially bred for the French perfume industry, at Glendarragh Farm in Appleton.
In the woods of Morrill, a floral designer named Alda lives in a dome surrounded by wild grounds filled with rare flowers and every known type of weed. She finds weeding distasteful, unnatural, and unnecessary.
My friend Andy and his Taiwanese bride Hanji just moved into the smallest house in Lincolnville and immediately transformed the front yard, which is about the size of your living-room rug, into a fantasy land of rock formations and wooden sculpture.
An artist in Rockland — right in the city, not out on the fringe somewhere — has made her backyard into a kind of art jungle, filled with metal sculptures and oversized plants, defended from deer by a 10-foot welded steel fence of her own design.
Once I visited an amazing place way down a dirt road in Monroe that had once been the home of a professional daylily hybridizer. On a hill above a roaring spring, surrounded by dense forest, sat a tiny house and an old-fashioned glass greenhouse and a meadow filled with tidy rows of Hemerocallis.
A perfectly cultivated musician named Glenn who lives in the heart of Camden has turned his yard into a fantasy land bejeweled with sparking and colorful and odd-shaped objets of every description, along with probably fifty kinds of rose. Children love to explore the secret twisting pathways through this place, as well they should.
Compared to such extravagant expressions of creative madness, my own modest eccentricities (for instance my determination to collect Asian bamboos — eleven varieties thus far which have survived multiple Maine winters!) seem hardly worth mentioning. Even my newly laid stone maze, largely the work of my two sons and one nephew, is nary a patch on Doug's sprawling labyrinth.
As mental illness goes, I suppose this kind of thing is relatively benign. Better than the alternatives, at any rate. Though I do sometimes miss the old veranda.