First Maine Spring, Revisited
We had a real winter this year. Even lifelong Mainers around town - and there are still plenty, for all the in-migration and property tax jumps and demographic drift - were shaking their heads, muttering about the snow, the accidents, the cost of heating oil. My new driveway needed plowing on fifteen separate occasions, despite my stoic disregard of piddling, ankle-deep build-ups. My daughter, Callie, freshly licensed to drive, slid into a little ditch, while I, with decades of experience, slid into a big one. We downed chicken soup by the decaliter. Mold colonized the window frames of our brand-new cottage. I forged a close bond with the crazy artist down the road who, each evening at six, weather be damned, shakes up a dry martini.
Spring this year has been a deliverance. More than that: a revelation.
I guess we knew it was coming. The calendar said so. We vaguely remembered it having come once or twice before. But those springs of memory were dank and gray and feeble, seasons of mud, of dead wreaths, of battered gardens. This year spring is different. This year everything is new.
A Maine spring, in the usual course of events, staggers in on a note of general exhaustion, like the curtain call after an Edward Albee play. Rarely are there exceptions: springs of dazzling brilliance, of unaccustomed warmth, of startling renascence. To me, this feels like one of them.
No doubt it's greatly subjective. Of the twenty Maine springs I've witnessed, only three stand out. There was, of course, my first.
A son of Virginia, I'd survived a whole winter Down East: hooray! Now at last I could step outdoors wearing fewer than seven layers of clothing. Now I could gather up all those returnable bottles that once held fortifying red wine - our primary heating source that year in a drafty rented cape. Now I could break out the croquet set and invite our new friends to a Memorial Day barbecue. (I hear you snickering. Didn't I realize that on Memorial Day it's always forty-two degrees, blustery, and miserable? No, smart aleck: that first spring, I did not.)
Then there was the year - 1992, it must have been - when spring showed up early and the daffodils were breaking into bloom at our tiny pondside cottage when my newborn son, Tristan, came home with his mommy from the hospital. Cue the Sinatra: that was a very good year.
Now suddenly, out of nowhere, comes this new, amazing, revelatory spring. Winter, which had seemed interminable, can now be seen as mere prologue. This, this is the real show, the essence of Maine. Was there ever a color so pure as the vermillion of that pieris leaf, the chartreuse of that dogwood? Did the sun ever pour with such syrupy extravagance over the field? Has moss ever glowed with such emerald luminosity? Was the earth this soft, this black, this ripe last year? Were the neighbors so friendly? The earthworms so fat? My teenagers so endearingly coltish? I refuse to believe it.
It's like my first Maine spring. All over again.
Our new house - in truth a modest, winterized cabin - surely helps. I lived for more than a decade in a kind of self-imposed exile, squeezed into a tiny apartment in an immaculate village with no garden of my own, no private space to putter in, no spot of ground in which to indulge my horticultural fantasies, which grow more extreme and delusional with time. Ah, but that's over now. I've moved back to this funky midcoast township - an ungentrified bastion where coyotes howl and moose prints crisscross my septic field, a bestselling memoirist knits sweaters at town meetings while a selectman's son blasts semiautomatic weapons in the woods. We've got a strip of sand beach here and miles of snowmobile trails, a single year-round convenience store, the less-frequented end of a state park. We're locked in a costly battle (which we may well lose) to keep a cell-phone tower out of our "viewshed." The governor came personally a while back to apologize for the state of our roads. Cue the Sinatra again: this is my kind of town.
Spring feels exceptionally intense in a place like this. Nature comes at you raw and unmediated. From the south-facing windows in our living room there's nothing to suggest we're not miles deep in the wilderness. West is a black wall of spruce. North is the most disheartening view; global warming hasn't touched the permanent ice pack on the driveway. Only in the east do you detect a human presence: a row of streetlights down at the beach, the nearby household that likes to hitchhike on my DSL signal. (But as the poets say, good passwords make good neighbors.)
You feel the absence of straight lines, sidewalks, clipped hedges, formal planting beds, municipal infrastructure. In springs past, such things helped you make sense of the rapid, bewildering changes in the world around you. Now you feel helpless as the earth beneath your feet turns to muck. Anarchy reigns in the little meadow out front; standing pools of black water breed the new season's mosquitos; raccoons rejoice in the compost bin; every single plant in the garden is surely dead. Social ecosystems are equally upended, with stir-crazy teenagers on the loose and grown-ups shuffling about, unsure whether we ought to be doing something. Probably, but what? It's either too early or too late. Too warm or too cold.
Really it's glorious. The only thing you can truly do with a Maine spring is to be in it - fully present, eyes open to the subtle greening and purpling and yellowing of the landscape, breathing the odd mix of smells, letting the warmer sun loosen your limbs up.
Poking in the dirt serves no reasonable purpose and endangers whatever delicate shoots might be stirring there, but I think you should do it anyway. It does you good and probably the earth likes the attention, that sad old thing. Now and again you make a pleasing discovery: some tiny wild plant you've never seen before and wouldn't notice a month from now, unusual tracks in the mud, the missing trowel, deadly Martian fungi on a tree stump, an actual living bud on a fifty-dollar trophy plant you plopped in the wrong place and have been feeling stupid about.
One day there will come a moment - impossible to foresee - when you experience what a friend of mine calls an "all-at-onceness." The living, breathing spirit of springtime in Maine possesses you and, for a little while, you feel a kinship with those stirring shoots and clamoring birds and wriggling worms and conjugating fungi and thieving raccoons. It doesn't last long. But afterward, you feel more alive than before, reawakened, renewed. You cast a tolerant eye on the mud prints in the hallway; you contemplate your tax assessment with Olympian equanimity; you consider that maybe, if that cell tower goes in, you'll console yourself with an iPhone.
Enjoy it while you may, my friend. All too soon it . . . wait, was that a blackfly?