By John McDonald
There are many things listed among “the first signs of spring,” even here in Maine. Californians await the return of the swallows to the Capistrano Mission. Elsewhere, folks are equally anxious for the return of the buzzards to Hinkley, Ohio.
Some know spring is close when teams in Major League Vaseball start spring training, and some are thrilled just to see the first crocus poke through the dead blades of grass on their brown lawn – once the deep snow melts.
All those things are important signs of the spring season and warmer weather, but I look for a more local sign — an authentic Maine sign of spring. As mounds of snow melt around the state, one of our great cultural icons begins to emerge. I am referring, of course, to “The Classic Maine Dooryard.” Covered under snow since January, Maine’s dooryards are being unveiled in all their rough, 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 trendier cities or manicured suburbs, I’ll give a quick explanation.
In Maine, a dooryard is a place right outside a humble dwelling’s backdoor (There are no dooryards outside front doors.) where a true Mainer stores all those things that his wife won’t let him store inside their already cluttered dwelling, but items that are much too important to his quality of life to just be thrown on the dump or hauled to a smart, new-age transfer station.
We’re not talking about piles of “junk” here, as some snobs from away would describe them. We’re talking about important items like roughed-up furniture, 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 away, our state’s dooryards slowly emerge, and many husbands rediscover important repair projects that were suddenly interrupted a few months ago. There are those electric stoves needing just a little tinkering, and right in the middle of a late-winter tinkering session, 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.
You know as well as I do that things here in Maine are changing. The re-emergence of Maine’s dooryards reminds us of some of the legal problems experienced by the curators of some of our dooryards. Some folks from away — who may have had congestion problems elsewhere — start complaining about some of our local customs and traditions. Before they’ve even finished unpacking their U-Hauls, they were finding fault. 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. Some snooty neighbors 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, they wouldn’t be in a dooryard in the first place 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 revered dooryards will last?
As they say Down East, “Not all change is always for the best.”
John McDonald is a storyteller and author of five regional bestsellers – including “A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar” and “The Maine Dictionary.”
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.