Thursday, June 16, 2005
An Event In The Forest
Tuesday's storm rolls in.
Photo for The Athens Messenger by John Halley.
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
And casting out myself,
become a soul.
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 away...so 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 there...so 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!