Thursday, June 16, 2005

An Event In The Forest

Tuesday's storm rolls in.
Photo for The Athens Messenger by John Halley. Posted by Hello

In this living world
the body I give up and burn
would be wretched
if I thought of myself as
anything but firewood.


Teach me, like you, to drink
creation whole
And casting out myself,
become a soul.

---Richard Wilbur

Truth is not far away. It is nearer than near. There is no need to attain it, since not one of your steps leads away from it.


I've recently given up all attempts to understand the weather. I didn't say predict it. Somehow I still believe we can do that. I said understand it. Maybe you can---and do---but my mind is hopeless at it. The Old Farmer's Almanac this year has an exhaustive article about How The Oceans Affect Our Climate. Pages 88 - 102...with lots of pictures and charts and diagrams. And arrows. All about La Nina and El Nino...and how to tell them apart, and which is happening when, and what they do to us. I read it all, over and over. I couldn't understand a word of it. I look at the swirling ocean, and know there's a tide coming in and going out. I look at the whirling clouds, and know there's wind blowing this way and that. That's about it for me.

So it was, in this condition of mind, that I confronted a hair-raising storm on Tuesday. Ilona was swimming at the municipal pool in town, and we were puttering about at home. Dana was doing her computing, and had agreed to drive in and pick our daughter up at 4:00. Shortly before time to leave she decided to look at weather radar I guess, and then let out a whoop. She said, "I'm going now!" There was a big red thing on the screen, headed right for us and moving with ferocious speed.

I'm more philosophical about these weather warnings, coming as I do from an inland, northerly, temperate climate. I could look out across Lake Chautauqua, and if I saw a dark cloud I knew I had enough time to bicycle the hour home and not get wet. Down here in the Bible Belt things are different. Everybody remembers that strange black cloud that formed over Bubba's property last summer...and the next thing we knew the whole place had been carried off. Churches were full the next Sunday.

So Dana piled into the car, and I rode down the drive to the road with her to check on a couple things. The sky was indeed looking very rough. I began the walk back up to the house...and then the wind hit. When a cold front blows in around here, and bashes up against a hot, wet, heavy, sticky front that's had us exhausted with 90 degree temperatures, the collision is furious. I knew that much, and I started to run. The thunder that had been 40 miles away a minute ago was now splitting the sky overhead. The trees began to wave like palm trees...only these are oaks! I got into the house, and headed out onto the deck...which is elevated some 20 feet off the ground, and well up the trunks of surrounding trees. I was nearly blown got back inside, and headed for the basement.

I pulled the plugs on the computer, the phone lines down here, and the TV antenna. There was so much thunder by now that I had difficulty telling the difference in sounds that came in the next second. The wind hit the house like a freight train...I thought it was trembling on our hillside...and at the same time, I heard the unmistakable crack and huge thump of a tree going down. We hear that often in these woods, but this was so close as to be on top of me. I heard no sound of crashing through the roof, and the deck still was out I went on to worry about the eaves and drainage.

Back in my day and area, a thing like this was called a cyclone. You know, like Mom says, "Your room looks like a cyclone hit it." When I was a kid, a cyclone went down the street just a block over. I remember it sounded just like a locomotive. Little wonder, as you have all the ingredients of a steam engine flying through the air. You've got fire in the lightning, you've got water, you've got a screaming wind. The resistance of that hot, soggy front it's pushing out makes the whole situation like a pressure cooker.

As I say, I do not understand these things...but I believe that a cyclone produces much the same effect as a tornado...only it's the opposite. There's no visible funnel, tearing everything up. This phenomenon swirls the other way...and pushes stuff down, grinding things into the earth. I went out onto the deck, and could see the small sassafras and dogwood branches bent over where the wind had hit the side of the house, dragged them down and left them there. The eaves had held and drained well. The antenna still was up. Most of the water had gone straight into the thirsty earth, so no trouble with flows down the hill. But then I noticed the tree that was missing. A silver maple, easily a hundred feet tall, at least 60 years old probably, and an arm's reach from the deck. Gracefully, it fell down the hill rather than on top of us. Suspended from a branch high above had been our sunflower seed feeder, which I could reach and fill quite easily. A major food source for the birds around here, it was buried in the vegetation below now.

The weather around here is quite peculiar. The storms often are violent and unpredictable, we think more so now as the effects of Global Warming become obvious. We are on an unglaciated plateau, about midway between where the glacier stopped and the Ohio River flows. The 3-mile high glacier melted about 30 miles north, and the flow of all that created a terrain of numerous ridges running every which way. The ridges are hill-sized, and there's a fair distance between them which shows us how wide and swift those melting rivers were all through here. Storms that come from the west just have a field day travelling through. They're even worse down on the River itself.

This storm came from the westsouthwest. The wind bounced off the ridge at my neighbors, flew a ways, before it roller coastered to the ground just this side of our creek. The cowcatcher of that freight flattened all the grass down there where it hit. Almost immediately it took out an old wild cherry that grew there. It threw it off to the side, and changed direction only slightly more to the east. In an instant it cracked down the maple...and went right over our house---not tearing off a single shingle or stone from the chimney---and still climbing our ridge, rolled over a tall poplar in front of the house. Three large trees down, and of course they took other smaller ones as they fell. The devastation was touch and go from here on into town. Dana and Ilona were safe.

Yesterday morning I took my walk down the drive and out to the road. There in the meadow, suspended between 2 stalks of joe-pye weed, was a perfect and delicate spider's web, bejewelled lightly with dew. I marveled at the quiet perfection of that creation. Here was the same Nature that a dozen hours earlier had torn my world apart. And then I had what my friend Ivy calls an I GOT IT moment: it's all perspective. From the standpoint of a small, flying insect that web is a calamity, a horror of violence and death. I see it as lovely because I'm not being wrapped up in it at the moment. Were I miles in the sky or in a satellite, that cyclone would appear to me with all the beauty and grace of the lacy web.

PS Dana wants you to know that in these parts and nowadays, the weather we experienced is known as a "downburst." Here's the definition she Googled up: A severe localized downdraft from a thunderstorm or shower. This outward burst of cool or colder air creates damaging winds at or near the surface. Sometimes the damage resembles tornadic damage. Well, it just goes to show ya this weather stuff is incomprehensible!

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Liberal Bias

From the free wallpapers at Posted by Hello

Love the pitcher less, and the water more.

---Sufi saying

No one can live your life except you.
No one can live my life except me.
You are responsible. I am responsible.
But what is our life? What is our death?

---Maezumi Roshi

The point is to perform every activity, from playing basketball to taking out the garbage, with precise attention, moment by moment.

---Phil Jackson

Saturday evening we went to a party at the home of some new friends at Ohio University. Our host is from Bangladesh, and he and his wife, of Irish descent, had brought together a most diverse group of individuals, tentatively to warm their new house and check out the construction of his wine well as its contents. There were couples from Bengal and Serbia, the local rural counties around Athens, and teachers at every level of education, many hailing, like me, from the Northeast. Faizul teaches in the College of Business, and some of his colleagues were invited. Dana and I agreed we wouldn't be talking politics in there. This would be a social occasion and we'd be on our best behavior.

But there was a young math teacher from Cincinnati, raised in Rhode Island of conservative Jewish roots, who had come to the party fresh from a round of golf. I noticed he and Dana had become engaged in intense conversation...and it was going on for quite a while. I continued becoming acquainted with the various fascinating folks, but eventually found myself close enough to Dana and her new friend to catch phrases like No Child Left Behind and that idiot Bush. They weren't arguing. I stepped in, ostensibly to change the subject, but they seemed to welcome my arrival. He is not a liberal, considers himself a centrist but has a history of voting Republican. However, he works in the public schools and finds his career increasingly hampered by conservative policies.

We commiserated for a while and the conversation began to move into the broader political spectrum. He said something very interesting to me. He said he thought liberals should stop being so defensive about the conservative charge that the news has a liberal bias. The very idea of news itself is a liberal idea, he continued. You aren't going to hear any news inside a closed institution. Why are we surprised the right wing wants government press releases published without question? Why the shock if reporters are hired and paid with tax dollars to spread the word about government programs? What if probing, dissenting, minority (like women?) reporters don't get called on at press conferences and find access difficult? Conservatives like to work hard and trust the hierarchy from which their orders come. Liberals are confused, disorganized hysterics, and why waste time on them? They just should shut up.

The notion of a free press being a liberal construct has been rather inspiring to me during the ensuing days. The conversation refreshed some thoughts I haven't had in rather a long time. I guess I've been looking at a lot of trees and not the whole forest. For many Americans the entire basis of our society is a liberal one, born from the Ages of Enlightenment and Reason. Has there ever been another nation that believed in an educated citizenry? Surely, feudal lords wanted the peasants as stupid as possible, but as Representative Ted Strickland added recently to that comment of mine, ready to go to war whenever the powerful say so. Among the first priorities of the young United States was a system of public, tax-supported schools. When radio and the telegraph and telephone were invented, the airwaves through which the technology travelled was considered public property. Our government was the steward to watch over the process for us, along with our public resources. Representative government is a liberal idea.

But our country has another side to it, another tradition. Like Australia, the United States was founded by people who weren't getting along where they were. Some were criminals or paupers, sent here to work off their debts and sentences. Some were dragged here in chains. Others came to take advantage of opportunities, strictly for the greed and fun of getting rich. Some came here to practice crime. We take pride that good conservative values and hard work can raise you up here through the class system. And we glorify the Wild West, our great outlaws, and even our more recent gangsters and celebrities of notoriety. We don't like people who "rock the boat," but we are attracted to headline-grabbers who perform deeds of outrage. We're a nation of law, but we seem also to believe that if you can get away with it, go for it. We're a nation that has experienced tragedy---wars, assassinations, catastrophes---but don't have a philosophy or religions really to account for tragedy and to include it and grow from it. Maybe we're a nation still in adolescence, without a rite of passage to adulthood yet in our tribal formula. We're a country that likes being kids, likes to play, a country of players. We're still getting to know ourselves, and whether or not we like rules...and how much of the playground is going to be ours.