Spring says, How you doing?


If you’ve lived here as long as I have, the coincident arrival of spring and cold, rainy, easterly weather is unsurprising. Islanders who leave for Florida in October and return in May often say they follow this migratory pattern because, although they love the warm winters down south, they miss New England’s changing seasons. You’ll pardon me for sniggering.

May through September is one season, to the hardy year-round remnant. October through April comprises several seasons, often called Cold, Colder, Dank, Danker, and Gloomy.

Years ago, wooing my bride, I exaggerated without restraint or compunction. I told her that the off-season was really the most charming interlude of the Vineyard year. No strangers, we have the place to ourselves, no snow or very little and it melts away in a day or two, spring begins in February. Actually, It was Henry Beetle Hough who supplied me with that last come-on. He was a practical man in many respects but immodest in his Vineyard fancies.

From my office window, at the onset of May, I see signs of change that suggest better days ahead. Beneath the overcast, through the mist and rain this week, I noticed that the extraordinarily large and lovely sloop Sophie has returned. Finished bright and turned out handsomely in every respect, Sophie spent last summer sailing out of Vineyard Haven. This week, her crew was up early scrubbing the sparkling decks in the rain.

Traffic to and from Sarah Smith’s sail loft over the Gannon and Benjamin boatyard has picked up. People lug tattered jibs, awnings, and cushion covers up to her workshop for annual rehabilitation.

The mooring field behind the breakwater is slowly filling, as the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard begins to empty its sheds of winter tenants and move them to their summer stations.

All winter long, I didn’t give a thought to the boats, or rather to the sanding, scraping, and painting required to get them into the water and doing their duty. Now, with the drizzle, the downpours, the fog, and the 40-degree temperatures of a Vineyard spring, my thoughts are turning to spring, and I find suddenly that I’m way behind on the boat chores.

The finches are sweeping out their quarters under the metal roof of the Gannon and Benjamin lumber storage shed. They fly in and out through the corrugations in the roofing, discussing every move with members of the waterfront community. Because my window is only a few feet from their seasonal quarters, and because we have known one another for 20 years, they talk to me too, but we don’t really communicate.

The bird feeders on the porch at home are increasingly busy. The rabbits that use to devour our perennial garden annually for all those years we lived in the country, don’t bother us these days. But, the squirrels, apparently very comfortable in a more urban setting, wage guerilla warfare on the birds’ food supply, a troubling but historic tribal conflict which reminds one of the entanglements we’ve found so frustrating in our sorties into Iraq and Afghanistan. With much less at stake on the back porch than in those battle zones half a world away, we just supply food and other forms of aid to both sides.

Moll found a dead red-tailed hawk in the woods near the Tashmoo shore the other day. I suggested that it committed suicide when it realized that it had returned from its mainland sojourn too soon. Or maybe, swooping through the woods the way they do, in fog thick as a smelly woolen sock, it died in a collision from a misshapen scrub oak. Moll couldn’t see the humor.

Seasonal human faces have begun to appear on the dirt road that leads to our house, folks whose real lives are lived in Washington or New York or Boston. They’re down early and briefly to begin opening the house, sweeping out the mouse droppings, dipping the drowned mouse out of the toilet bowl, taking the seaweed off the gardens, and opening the windows to let the mothball smell escape before everyone moves in on Memorial Day weekend.

How was your winter, they want to know. Cold, monotonous, but over at last, we say. Nice to see you again. The kids have grown six inches.

Spring, such as it is, happens earlier and speeds along down-Island. Up-Island, spring plods, or rather potters along. People say it is on account of the wind. It’s windier in Chilmark than in Tisbury, for sure, and windy places are colder, never mind what the meteorologists say about radiational cooling. Maybe, there’s more hot air in Tisbury or Edgartown, encouraging the crocuses and daffodils?

Or, maybe it’s personality. In Chilmark, folk are peculiar, reserved, crabbed, unapproachable, according to this hypothesis, which is not necessarily mine. The human chill slows the gathering spring. By contrast, in Tisbury, folks are bubbly, antic and warm-hearted. The municipal wackiness gives spring a boost.

I am not an expert on these things, but I can tell you that the signs of spring’s deceleration, northeast to southwest, are unmistakable.

Down-Island, people at the post office want to know if your boat is ready for the water. They ask, Got the cover off yet? Got the bottom painted? No, and no. Doing any work on her? When do you think you’ll go overboard? It was the dead of winter yesterday, and suddenly everyone is in a hurry.

Or if they are gardeners, they want to know whether you’ve planted anything yet. Got your garden tilled? Spread the lime yet? Spread the fertilizer? Got your peas in?

Up-Islanders, waiting stoically, say spring is a matter of patience and faith.