“April is the cruelest month.”

Not exactly. In Maine, January-March are pretty cruel, too, when it feels like we are under an ice sheet, as are parts of May, when killer frosts come out of nowhere. T.S. Eliot would not have understood this since he was lugubriating in temperate Lausanne, Switzerland, when he wrote “The Waste Land” in 1922.

What is particularly cruel about April in Maine is that it comes and goes so fast we have to jump all over the opportunities while we are still habituating in the limitations of winter.

For example, the brush pile that sat under snow all winter has to be torched before the snow completely leaves the ground, exposing dry grass all around. That dry grass, coupled with a little wind from any direction, spells grass fire to anyone able to issue fire permits, so forget it if you want a permit.

Don’t even think about starting a brush pile fire if you don’t have a permit. It will only end in heartbreak, and perhaps a hefty fine.

Years ago, in Stonington, I left a message with the fire chief’s wife (the chief wasn’t available) that I would be burning brush. When the fire finally caught on, some neighbors saw it through the woods and called the fire department.


The town’s new fire tanker went barreling down the camp road where my fire was burning, and got stuck up to the running boards. I explained the permit situation to the disbelieving driver, who wanted to douse the fire to lighten the load on the mired truck.

As the hose was leveled at the fire, I yelled, “No! It took me all day to get it going! Don’t put it out!” The hose was reluctantly aimed away from the fire, but it was many hours before the truck was hauled back up the road.

If I hadn’t got my “permit,” I’m sure I would have been fined, and probably put on the department blacklist for life.

So, back to the present. Last Saturday, I got my fire permit at the West Gardiner Fire Station and spent most of the day happily burning last year’s brush. The yellow copy of the permit was in my vest pocket just in case the truck arrived.

Another April task: Cleaning out the chicken coop and sheep pen and combining the muck into a fast composting pile. It can be used in this year’s garden only if it reaches temperatures above 131 degrees, killing the pathogens. The deep snow on the ground until last week made it impossible to move all that manure into a nice layered pile near the garden.

Our new apprentice, Jon Ault, of Pittsburgh, helped me clean out the sheep pen just after the April 1 snowstorm. And in the pouring rain on Monday morning, we donned raingear and breathing masks to attack the chicken coop.


It was a far cry from his previous work in the mortgage industry, but he agreed that it was far more productive.

While March’s temperatures (freezing at night, thawing during the day) are not conducive to growing vegetables outside, it is great for tapping maple trees for sap.

Our 10 buckets produced about 40 gallons of sap (about a gallon of syrup) until the milder temperatures of April brought the sap run sputtering to an end. I made the last run over bare ground in rubber boots, gathering just four gallons of sap, and remembering how it was to haul half-filled buckets through deep snow while wearing snowshoes.

While carrying a nearly full bucket, I tripped over a root in my snowshoes, and my right knee landed on another hard root. I was reminded of a joke I had heard recently: The only time you hear “Jesus Christ” mentioned in a Unitarian church is when someone is falling down the stairs.

Despite the season’s cruelty, it almost invites you to push your luck. Last year at this time we transformed most of our front lawn into garden beds.

Because the former lawn had less clay and better drainage than our big garden, Michele and Jon rebuilt the beds on March 31 and prepared to plant spinach seeds. The next day’s snowstorm buried the beds in six inches of snow.

Not to worry, though; the snow’s all gone now and the beds are planted. Spinach is on its way.

Denis Thoet and his partner, Michele Roy, own and manage Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner. www.longmeadowfarmma ine.com.

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