It never ceases to amaze me, the way a physical sensation can trigger a memory etched into your brain and transport you through space and time to the other side of the world. A certain set of conditions, this light, that breeze, the way the air hits your face, a sweet smell off the ocean; walking around campus in these first weeks of spring has been an exercise in memory unbidden.
In 1996 I did a semester abroad in Galway Ireland, a country in a state of perpetual early spring. I lived there from January to May and the sun only came out the last week before I left. The air had the same damp close quality as I felt on certain days these past weeks, cool, but usually not cold, easy on the skin and lungs. The breeze mostly came of the bay, where the River Corrib meets Galway Bay, the brackish smell is burned into my head. Here at home the ocean smell is sweeter and I catch it as I walk around campus between classes. Less fresh water? More salt? Less urban dankness in the mix? Walking up the hill in Castine, under that low gray ceiling, 42 degrees and 100% humidity, all I needed was a whiff of diesel exhaust to instantly bring me back to the streets of Galway.
Early spring is indeed a world so distinct from the one we’ve lived these past months, the air damp and cool, and holding the body close; spring’s first inklings are not green grass and flowers blooming, but instead moist air that doesn’t try to kill you. Here spring comes as a flood, a rush of liquid released from winter’s solid grip, we Mainers would recognize elements of spring in what the Irish call winter, a steady state of gray and damp, punctuated at last by moments of unimaginable sunlight. For the Irish, that long gray damp is as trying as our long icy winter, and that is the difference. Here in Maine when if finally gets damp I rejoice, in Ireland I just wondered if my clothes would ever dry, and why there were mushrooms growing out of the carpet.
Even in the rain I made the most of my time there. Every weekend the college Mountaineer Club charted a bus to take us hill walking (a.k.a. hiking). We rambled all over the Connemara region of western Ireland, and always had the choice of a short walk, medium walk or long walk, all of which ended at the nearest local pub. After a day in the rain you’d get your pint and jockey for a seat near the peat fire in the fireplace. The walks were mostly the same, steep hills, long grass, sheep. Sometimes a glacially carved lake, sometimes just a peaty bog, but none of that mattered-what was important was being outside, out of the city. Getting out to where there was enough space for my head, and moving my body enough to satisfy my heart.
Coming from rural Maine being in the country side felt right, even without the trees. That was the spring I learned to find Polaris, the North Star. On the rare nights when it was clear I would go outside and look up at the stars, and in the way of homesick people everywhere, I realized that I was looking at the same stars my loved ones back home could see. The same north star sat immovable in the sky in Galway as in Maine. Polaris became a portal to home, I could see it, they could see it, and we were together.
I heard wood frogs calling two days ago, and a single early peeper bravely calling his brothers out of the leaf litter. The arctic air has lost its battle with the ever strengthening sun. Spring in Maine is a time to revel in that sunlight, to turn your face up to it and feel it’s warmth. It is so easy to feel good when that sun comes out. But those other days we have, the gray soft ones, that’s the spring I recognize from Ireland. That’s how I know winter really is over.