"In a minute there is time," frets J. Alfred Prufrock — poor schlub! — "for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."
And so indeed I have reversed my position on most of the key questions concerning spring in Maine (Does it exist? What is it trying to teach us?) any number of times. But after twenty-one years of this — twenty-one of these strange interludes between roughly Easter and Memorial Day, spent mostly watching helplessly while very little happens at no great speed — I have reached certain firm conclusions. Which I will post quickly before I change my mind about any of them.
Blackflies are not as bad as mosquitoes. Blackflies are like the Wehrmacht in 1942. They are tenacious with a tendency to swarm. But they are a conventional enemy; you can see them and take ordinary measures to defend yourself and within a very few weeks they will go slinking back to Königsburg. Mosquitoes, by comparison, are the Viet Cong.
You should have planted more bulbs last year. You're always planning to, but somehow you never get around to it, and now look.
The confused genus called Amelanchier — shadbush or serviceberry to us — is the most beautiful ugly duckling in the pond. It's enchanting at this time of year, with fresh white flowers against bronze or plum-colored leaves. Yet I believe I have never seen a well-shaped tree growing in nature. The problem is, they get overshadowed by taller neighbors and, throwing self-respect to the wind, bend cravenly toward the light. Sometimes they seem to have lost their upper limbs. They haven't — the "upper" limbs are growing more or less sideways. There's a new street planting of some Amelanchier variety along Route 1 in Camden. They're all nice and symmetrical now. Let's see how they look in a couple of decades.
Plants that are late breaking out of winter dormancy ought to be exterminated en masse. Here it is, past the middle of May, and your oak-leaf hydrangea is poking up like a dead thing, droopy with the remains of last year's inflorescence (it was flowering right up to the moment of its death, apparently). And why does the bark peel that way? Of course two months from now it will be the most refined thing in your shady backyard, but that is no comfort now.
For heaven's sake, stop trying to grow all those things you remember fondly from your childhood in ... where was it, Birmingham? Goa? Admit to yourself that you live in Maine now, and none of that stuff will grow here.
On the other hand, much else will. Have you tried Japanese maples? There are more species than the usual Acer palmatum, and countless varieties even within that species — you don't need to grow the ordinary red-leafed kind. The great thing about these trees is that they send out those beautiful leaves, I mean, early in spring — too early for their own good, probably. Spring leaf color can be startlingly different than the quieter tones the tree will assume by midsummer.
Ninebark — Physocarpus opulifolius —is a native shrub that the nursery trade seems to have fallen in love with. It's very early to leaf out, and some varieties (like 'Coppertina' and 'Dart's Gold') will never look quite so good again as they do right now. That's okay — later you won't need them so much. I think this would make a better hedge than, say, privet.
The most aggravating thing about this time of year is that the air refuses to warm up. This is a great mystery, because the sun can get downright hot, and the ground becomes warm to the touch, and even the zombified Hydrangea quercifolia is showing signs of life. And yet every night the temperature drops to 40 — tonight the weather service is predicting pockets of frost. And just try stepping into the shadows at midday.
Maybe that's why we become unsettled in spring. It's as if we don't really know where we are — quite the converse of that other great seasonal transition, from summer to fall, when we often feel clear-headed, focused, energized. In spring you see people walking around as though in a mild daze — perfectly functional, yet with an air that today is not quite living up to their expectations. It will be the same tomorrow. I notice this especially with my students at Watershed — teenagers wear their emotional state like a floppy sweatshirt — but I think we are all affected, one way or another. By Memorial Day we will have settled down. Probably the weather will be atrocious, and that will put us back on familiar ground.
Novelist Richard Grant lives in Lincolnville and is a Down East contributing editor.