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There are many events that are listed among “the first signs of spring.” Some people await the return of the swallows to Capistrano in California. Others are equally anxious about the return of the buzzard to Hinkley, Ohio. Some know that spring is finally here when the Major League Baseball season starts, and some are thrilled just to see the first crocus poke through the dead blades of grass on their front lawn.
All those things are important signs of the spring season and warmer weather but I look for a more local sign – a Maine sign.
As mounds of snow melt around the state, one of our great, great cultural icons begins to emerge. I am referring, of course, to The Maine Dooryard. Covered under snow since January, Maine's dooryards are slowly being unveiled in all their unvarnished glory.
For those new arrivals from away and even some former country folk with short memories who now dwell in one of Maine's trendy cities or manicured suburbs, I'll give a quick explanation.
In Maine a dooryard is a place right outside a dwelling's backdoor (there are no dooryards outside front doors) where a Mainer stores all those things that he can't fit inside his already cluttered house but things that are much too important to his quality of life to just be thrown on the dump or hauled to a trendy transfer station.
We're not talking about piles of junk here, as some effetes from away would have us describe them, but important items like old stoves, refrigerators, dishwashers, used couches, bed springs, engine blocks, outboard motors, snow blowers, slightly dysfunctional lawn mowers, tires, chains, a transmission or two and chicken wire. For some reason there's always lots of chicken wire in your well-stocked dooryard.
As our snow begins to melt, our state's dooryards slowly emerge and many Mainers rediscover important repair projects that were suddenly interrupted. There are those electric stoves that just needed a little tinkering with, and right in the middle of a late-winter tinkering procedure those stoves were suddenly buried under two or three feet of snow.
For as long as I can remember that's the way things have always worked here in Maine.
But you know as well as I do that things here in Maine are changing. The reemergence of Maine's dooryards reminds me of some of the legal problems experienced by the curators of some of our dooryards.
Some folks from away – those who fled the problems and congestion of states to the south and west – start complaining about some of our local customs and traditions before they've even finished unpacking their U-Hauls. And we all know that no tradition or custom is more revered in rural Maine than the tradition of acquiring and carefully storing important items just outside your backdoor in a place traditionally known in Maine as a dooryard.
In recent years, stories have appeared in local papers telling about the complaints of some neighbors. They “have issues” with the essential items some Mainers might have neatly stored. Some towns – mostly in southern Maine – have even passed ordinances trying to outlaw the traditional Maine dooryard, saying they are, in effect, dumps.
It just shows how little some of these town officials know. If the items were just junk and ready for the dump it wouldn't be in a dooryard in the first place, now would it?
So, as you drive around Maine this spring, I hope you'll pay attention as our dooryards emerge from underneath their wintry blankets. If you have a camera you might ask a dooryard curator if you can snap a picture of his landmark that is such an important part of Maine's rural landscape. What with the increased call for local ordinances, who knows how long our dooryards will last?
As they say Down East, not all change is for the best.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is mainestoryteller@yahoo.com.
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