The Mast-Head: Shadbush Are Sparking

Spring does not linger on the edge of Gardiner’s Bay

After a persistently cold winter, the shadbush has at last bloomed. Cloudlike sprays of white flowers are rising briefly here and there on Napeague like fireworks and fading away as quickly, as their gentle petals drop and green leaves unfurl where the sparks had just been.

Spring does not linger on the edge of Gardiner’s Bay. Trees slumber for months, and then get on with their business. There is pollen to release. Fruit must be set. By the Fourth of July, the shadbush’s small, hard green berries will hide among the greenery.

In high summer, the catbirds will take up residence outside my kitchen window to gorge, leaving the small trees’ plans for a new generation in modest purple piles under their perches or, less optimistically, on the hood of my truck.

But in the last couple of years something has gotten hold of the shadbush. There are dead stands along the edges of the swamps and low places, their white-gray bones leaning against neighbors like gravestones knocked over by vandals.

Several speculative, conflicting causes may be responsible for the shadbush’s sudden demise: disease, fungus, or maybe sea-level rise altering conditions in the ground. Time, too, seems a likely suspect. 

In old photographs, there is very little tall vegetation along the southerly shore of the bay. I have long wondered why. Did the 1938 Hurricane wipe all of it away, perhaps? If so, could the shadbushes that began to rise anew as World War II raged now be beginning to drop away, like those veterans?

I worry, too, that their replacements will have a tough time of it, between a changing climate and the predations of deer on the saplings. For now, though, the show goes on — sparks and the end of darkness — each May along the roadsides and by the edges of the swamps.