The Universal Notebook: 'Mud, mud, I love mud'

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“April,” poet T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Wasteland,” “is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull rots with spring rain.”

I have never fully comprehended what Eliot had against April, unless it was that signs of rebirth and renewal reminded him of the transient nature of life. But if he had lived in Maine, he might have had more immediate reasons to dislike April.

“April is the cruelest month, breeding/Frost heaves and pot holes, mixing/Snowmelt and mud, stirring/Dirt roads and backyards into quagmires.”

By all reports, mud season should be a doozy this year.

The 3 feet of snow in my backyard has rotted down into the raw earth where the maple stand was removed last fall, and already I must guard against the paws of cats and dogs and the muddy little feet of grandchildren tracking up the impractical off-white carpet the previous owners installed. It looks great, all muted earth tones and soft textures, very modern, but how are you supposed to walk on it in April?

I’m already sick of toweling off the dog’s dirty feet after every walk. The words of my old college buddy Rick Charette’s popular children’s song keep looping through my head, “Mud, mud, I love mud. I’m absolutely, positively wild about mud.”

Daughter Hannah and her family have moved out to the country, so these days I am renewing my acquaintance with the back roads of Cumberland County. I confess I have always found the rural routes of Freeport, Durham, Pownal, Gray and New Gloucester confusing, but now that I have been exploring them daily I have begun to discover the beauty of their pointless and pocked meanderings: they do keep the traffic counts down.

There is a point in my drive to Hannah’s new house at which I always think of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” At this juncture I must decide whether to take the shorter dirt road or the longer paved road.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”

All the difference in my suspension, that is.

The dirt road is an obstacle course of ruts, washboard bumps, puddles and slippery slurry with intermittent stretches of muck and gravel. The paved road is “paved” in name only, at one point crossing the slough of power lines in a bucking, heaving, broken trail of macadam, cold patch, potholes, soft shoulders, dipsy doodles and thank you ma’ams that is a contender for the poorest excuse for a public road in Maine. Woe to shock absorbers, control arm bushings, exhaust shields and motor mounts not prepared to take a direct tar hit. There are places along this turbulent way where you bottom out unless going under 20 mph, which of course is the beauty of which I speak.

As I pick my way through the ditches and pitches of tar and sand, I am going slow enough to ask a gentleman fetching his mail whether the road is in such incredibly poor condition because he didn’t pay his taxes or because he wants it that way. Talk about traffic calming.

My old friend and fellow columnist Al Diamon once proposed that we could solve a lot of Maine’s problems simply by not maintaining the roads. If the speed limit on a cracked, crumbling, crater-pocked Maine Turnpike had to be reduced to 20 instead of raised to 70, we’d either discourage day-trippers with little cash, credit or resolve, or we’d encourage renegade off-roaders who love nothing better than to go muddin’. One man’s pain is another man’s pleasure.

Here in Maine, the April cruelty Eliot evoked is simply a matter of teasing bodies starved for heat and light. Frost, an adopted New Englander back in the day when New England still existed, understood this temporal taunt well. I leave off this muddy meditation with a stanza from Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” These are lines lovely wife Carolyn recites to me by heart each spring as she waits patiently to get her hands back in the dirt.

“The sun was warm but the wind was chill.

You know how it is with an April day

When the sun is out and the wind is still,

You’re one month on in the middle of May.

But if you so much as dare to speak,

A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,

A wind comes off a frozen peak,

And you’re two months back in the middle of March.”

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.