Trapped in Spring
Cabin fever no longer applies. The helplessness of spring is different from claustrophobia. We can open the door -- après vous — and plunge into the great outdoors. But what do we plan to do when we get there?
It’s too early for anything that might pass for gardening. The nearest we can come is a nervous stroll over the still-melting ground to assess winter damage and look for signs of survivors. Walking on spring soil is a tricky business, though. In places it's reassuringly firm; in others, it turns into a squelchy, pudding-like substance that swallows your foot. Which, if you’re like me, is clad in a pull-on boat shoe that Mother Earth has kindly pulled off for you.
If you live among trees you’ll have debris to clear. Wet snow and freezing rain this winter brought down many branches of all sizes, including one twenty-foot cedar along my driveway (which did have the grace to fall alongside and not athwart the drive. Which remained impassable anyway). It can be sad to gaze up at an injured hardwood. But then if you look around at the other trees you’ll notice that most of them are scarred, one way or another. Winter does its worst yet somehow the trees go on and live another hundred years anyway. Now go inside and anthropomorphize about that. You’ll feel better.
Sometimes, on these dangerous jaunts, you make discoveries -- a fresh green or purplish shoot, maybe, poking out of the black soil. Aha! You remember now: some early-flowering specimen you plopped (by accident) in a well-favored spot, then forgot about, on which account it has survived. Now if you’re an ordinary mortal you'll set out to destroy this plant by fussing over it. You’ll gently remove the little twigs and leaves and other flotsam around it, giving it lots of air and sunshine. Then you’ll go happily indoors to hear on the radio of a heavy frost expected that evening, with snow likely after midnight. In despair you’ll run around looking for some way to protect the emerging plant (whose natural protection you’ve thoughtfully removed) and hit upon the idea of, let’s say, cutting the top off a milk carton and inverting that over the poor thing.
I don’t mean to prejudge you with this milk-carton business. It’s possible you’ll hit upon some brilliant scheme that is even worse.
And so the frost comes, and the snow and the wind and all the rest of it. By ten o’clock tomorrow morning it’s gone and temperatures are back in the 40s, where the Almighty apparently intends that they shall remain until Memorial Day. Do you remove the milk carton now, only to repeat the whole operation tonight, subjecting the plant to gyrating extremes of enclosure and exposure? Do you leave it basking in its little plastic hothouse, sending out tender new growth that will be increasingly vulnerable to calamities yet to come? Don’t look at me. My hands are dripping with sap spilled tragically before its time.
If you’d left the little plant alone, it would have been fine, probably. Plants that survive in Maine have seen it all before. You, on the other hand, might have gone crazy with impatience, so perhaps on balance it's best to indulge in this kind of seasonal foolishness.
There is one — perhaps only one — helpful thing you can do in spring vis-a-vis the great outdoors. You can plan for the season ahead. You can do this in relatively safety indoors or out. You can do it with or without inspirational books and magazines and online nursery catalogs. You can do it, as I do, in Zen-like fashion: staring for hours out a window at the troublesome spot that is too dry or too shady or too exposed to the road or too something, awaiting a flash of enlightenment.
This year in my seasonal trance I've been given to understand that I must start a herb garden. It will be an old-fashioned kind of thing filled with mysterious plants whose names I’ve always liked: pennyroyal, motherwort, viper’s bugloss, skullcap, monkshood, rue, weld, woad, Good King Henry. Blessedly this revelation came in March and not in May — there was still time to order a bunch of $2.00 seed packets that will yield hundreds of plants, though they may not amount to much this first year.
I’m planning to lay out the rows of herbs to form a labyrinth — the kind of labyrinth that has a long, twisty way in to the center but a short, easy way out. My friend Doug has made a complicated, Chartres-style labyrinth at his place on Route 52, which takes forever to get out of, so you resort to cheating. Even Doug cheats: I’ve seen him. My new herb labyrinth has no such problems. In fact it's absolutely perfect, so far. That’s the blessing of spring.