Like The Queen
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Sunday, September 21, 2003  

Hurricane. Circle of storm and wind and power. How big they are and how still they leave us when they’re done their howling and shaking and splashing.

Usually we get wind and rain and power outages, with perhaps one or two old trees coming down, along with lots of trash that’s been hanging in the treetops since the last big storm. Thursday a.m., when I got up it was windy and humid and gray, but not yet stormy, so I went in to work, intending to close at noon after the winds were expected to pick up. All week people had been driving north, doubly clogging our tiny one road town. Not a local came in that morning, but many evacuees, staying at local motels, came in, hoping for Internet access and looking for some place more pleasant than a hired room.

The heaviest winds were predicted for 11 p.m. and I had a pretty cavalier attitude about the morning and early afternoon weather. I even stopped in town to pick up a pork tenderloin for dinner - full of that somewhat excited anticipation a half day holiday gives you. The drive was wet but not very windy - and I drive a very small car, so winds tend to buffet it on long stretches of highway. I was home just before 1 o’clock and the power was off by 1:30. What a surprise. I had counted on at least 3 or 4 more hours of electricity.

The light in the house was a dim gray too making it difficult to do much unless one was in a south window. I lit the oil lamps but this paraffin oil doesn’t burn very brightly. When we lived in the yurt we used kerosene and though it smelled, and smoked up the chimneys, we could read by the light of one lamp if we sat at a table and by two if we were in bed. Of course - our eyes were 25 years younger then.

My biggest disappointment was that I hadn’t yet sewn the steeks on the SGV so I couldn’t work on it at all! I set up the spinning wheel in the south living room window and spun up the rest of the red merino/cashmere. It’s different spinning with limited visibility. I noticed my fingers had a slightly heightened sensitivity - but the truth is, I’ve been wanting this stuff spun for a long time and I was willing to accept pretty much any quality spinning to get it done. I’ve spun 2 oz of it and never once did I get a feel for it. I wound it with the ball winder and left it to ply when I had better light.

I’ve been dreaming about working with the black gum hand painted super wash I dyed last Sunday and there was just enough daylight to spin up a little bit of that before we really had to bow to the evening.

All the while the wind was blowing and the rain would come in fits and spits. I set a bucket beneath the gutter to gather rainwater and we had about 3 gallons of water in bottles and about another 2 gallons in the taps. Evidently the media had worked people up to an absolute frenzy last weekend because the stores in town were out of water, batteries, lamp oil - all those storm things - by Monday morning. Still, I probably wouldn’t have bought water anyway and we already had lamp oil and batteries. We’d been eating down the freezer all months, preparatory to a good cleaning and my pantry was well stocked with non-perishables. Truth is, all I expected 24 hours of darkness after the storm.

Before it got dusky we walked out into the cornfield, tucking pants legs up above the hems of our slickers. Wind was streaming out of the east and the rain fell pretty much horizontal. As I looked to the north, 2 seagulls struggled against the wind. I watched them wheel and dive and flap and I thought maybe they were my guardian angels looking over the place before they hightailed it back to heaven.

We still had a telephone so I called first my folks to see how they were - out of power, of course, then my assistant at the library who told me they’d lost power around 4. By the light of the oil lamps I cooked roast pork tenderloin with spiced roasted potatoes - a favorite and, with steamed vegetables sprinkled with real parmesan cheese, it’s a 9 pt. WW dinner that leaves me feeling luxurious. We dined at the table - something we rarely do any more because we’ve grown lazy with trays and it means less clean up for the galley slave, who happens to be me. But we needed to consolidate the light and once dinner was over we put everything in the kitchen and left it till daylight.

The wind was still growing stronger. We had a battery operated radio that only picked up WTOP in D.C. !! Sheesh! But at least that’s an all-news station and they mostly only had news about the storm that night. In that dim oil light, though, I grew drowsier and drowsier. I am sure I was asleep by 9. Now, this is my preferred bedtime, but not BD’s. He read into the wee hours and got to enjoy all the sounds of the storm. He built the house and it’s so solid that not even windows rattled, though the winds were steadily in the 45 mph range with at least one micro-burst 100 yards from the house. I woke somewhere around 4 a.m. but since it was so dark and I didn’t want to use up lamp oil, I let myself slide into a meditative state and before long I was asleep again.

The magic of a NewDay woke me about 7 - breeze still whisking briskly, but now from the west. All windows and doors were thrown open, letting in whatever light would come. Out the front door I could see only one treetop nudging out into the circle where we park the cars. Of course, the yard was littered with leaves, but no serious looking devastation seemed to have hit. Nor had the power been restored - well - I didn’t expect it to have been. No point in trying to fix things till the cause of the damage is gone. One perfect cup of coffee later I was really ready to have a look around. BD was still dead to the world so I took the pups and we started off:

First to look at the tide - but the path down to it was blocked. Not just a tree - but a domino collapse of the forest from marsh to the treetop that had blocked the circle - 1,000 yards of downed trees had carved a swath through the forest just to the south of the yard; no more than 100 feet from the house! That was some blow!

I left the path and walked down the bank to see how high the tide was; at low tide it was probably 3 feet above the high tide line. Back at the house I couldn’t stay still. I had to see more so we walked down the lane. It’s 7 10ths of a mile from the house to the mailbox - and right at the corner of the field and the lane there is the grandfather of all trees on our place. It’s a pin oak, though I always call it a willow oak. It is such a majestic glory that when we had phone lines put in, we paid the extra for underground lines, so that it wouldn’t have to be cut. It’s 5 feet in diameter, with a 300 foot limb span. It has an enormous limb as big as a 100 year old oak tree, that leans to the west, arching over the lane. We’re always talking about having that limb trimmed, but we never have yet. This was one tree I was worried about losing, but it’s so enormously big that you can see it from the house as you look out across the field. And it is standing there today too, by the mercy of God.

That was not the case for 3 other spots along the lane though. I strolled
past them, stepping around the limbs, because this was just a scouting
foray. There were few trees in the field - one large one in the west
field, but I did have to bid farewell to a venerable old Cedar who stood
guard by my mailbox. This enormous guardian used to shelter my
precious LD while he waited for the school bus - and he’d sit there
waiting for me to meet him when he got off. We had just reminisced
about it 2 weekends ago - scooping fat handfuls of the blue berries and
crushing them in our hands to savor their Christmassy scent. It’s not
actually on our property. The last 2 10ths. of the lane cross Ellis land.
And it fell into the field. It’s so big, and cedars are so miserably
prickly, cleaning it up is a job for a bulldozer.

From the tar road I could see some downed trees, but the strangest sight of all was something that looked like an enormous Eskimo kayak turned on its side, with the seat facing me. Only - it wasn’t a kayak of course, it was a collapsed grain bin, with the roof blown out and the sides flattened. This is serious damage - a terrible blow for a young farm family.

All the time this glorious wind was buffeting me from the west, sending clouds of pristine whiteness dancing across the sky. I walked with the dogs down towards the grain bin - perhaps 1/2 a mile away - when one of my up the road neighbors drove by. We congratulated each other for the good fortune that no houses had been damaged - every tree that went down from the river to the highway had missed the houses they were near - in one case by millimeters, but a millimeter is as good as a mile, no? He told me also, that trees were blocking the tar road out to the highway and had taken down power lines as well.

I could see trees down in the yards of all the houses along the river, but I didn’t want to take my dogs with me so I turned at the grain bin and strode home. By now, gray clouds were gathering again, and by the time I was home, the entire sky was gray. It never did rain, though, and the afternoon was blue and beautiful and fresh. Perfect storm washed earth.

The rest of the day was spent picking up debris and helping clear the road. BD started with the paths; the one to the pier and the one we call TheHomePath. It’s enormous work and I would have started with the trees down on the lane, but later he told me that he knew he’d clear the road but he wanted to be sure he got at least some of the paths done. It’s a good thing too, since we found out today that there’s as much or more left to do in the east woods.

The final tree was a great spruce pine that was also on Ellis land, but it was blocking our way so we cut it up. Evergreens are lovely, and they smell great, but they are the nastiest, stickiest, dirtiest trees that grow. Every time you touch their branches you get sap on you and it itches till you wash it off. We were both as sticky and grungy as sewer rats before we were done. Since we’d had the truck with us - to get the higher limbs, we drove on up to see how badly the road was blocked. No mail came but all our neighbors were driving out, mostly to see if they could drive out, since everything was shut down - town, countryside, everything from the ocean to the mountains.

There was no way I was going to spend the evening in pine sap splendor so once home I grabbed soap and a washcloth and we made our way down to the pier. It was about a foot underwater and much of it was covered with dead marsh grasses, but bare feet can feel what eyes can’t see and we inched our way out to the canoe, baled her out, and paddled across to the swimming beach.

Now - swimming around here in September is something we do Labor Day weekend just to prove we can do it, and no more. When the nights are in the low 60’s and the days don’t get above 80, that river can get mighty cold. But nobody ever said I was not intrepid. BD joked that all he ever said was that he’d paddle to the swimming beach, not dive in - a challenge to me for sure - and so by the count of 3 I dove in, screaming before I ever even went under. It’s a thrill to make all the noise your chest will allow. And once you’re wet, you know, you grow tingly warm. And soap does get sap off if you scrub hard enough. The water was so fresh with rain that I came home feeling sleek and delicious. Soup and ibuprofen for me, leftover meet and potatoes for BD and I was ready to call it a day. The last thing I remember seeing was 8:30 on the clock - and the next thing I saw was 7 a.m. Sweet Sweet sleep - that knits up the ravel’d sleeve of care.

Today was the beginning of grunge, though. The kitchen counters were unwiped, my fingernails just seemed to attract grime, and water was growing scarce. It was another clear sky day, but much stiller and warmer. The phone was dead but by putting the radio in the window of the upstairs hallway we could pick up the local radio station, mostly telling you where to go for more water and gas. The building supply shops were opening up even though they had no power, so folks could buy repair materials. One grocery store across the river was also open. I was down to 1 gallon of water and BD found another liter bottle in one of the boats. The town of Warsaw was giving out BYOB water - up to 10 gallons per family and we had a tank of gas, but I was hope hope hoping to use that on Sunday for a drive on my birthday. Not exactly worried - but thinking hard about things - that’s the state I was in.

We dressed leisurely, I was knitting some lace out of Jen’s red merino/cashmere, for which I had sacrificed one scant cup of precious water in order to wet set it. After a while we went out to walk the HomePath and made it all the way across the swamp bridge and up to the fork that takes you out to Mossy Point. Here was real forest devastation. Another burst had dominoed 500 feet of enormous ancient oaks and younger, but equally large poplars. A huge hole in the forest has opened up, letting streams of sunshine down into what had been truly a bare floor. This is a sadness - since I often came out to this spot and lay down to look up into the canopy world hundreds of feet up. There are still some behemoths, but come next spring there will be the strangest new growth - fleshy poke weed plants, small scrubby things that produce weedy blossoms. The limbs of the surrounding trees will reach out into the sunshine and one autumn an acorn will drop. Leaves will fall on top of it, snow and rain will compress them, I may even step on it, pressing it deeper into the loam below, a fawn may curl up on the soft pad of leaves heating the earth below, and come the first warm days of March or April, a tiny little rootlette will poke its way out of that brown cracked shell and into the earth. And life will begin again.

It was nigh on to noon by now, and we checked the mailbox - 2 newspapers and 4 credit card offers awaited us. Lots of photos, lots of articles about the Storm of the Generation. Well - the century hasn’t been around long enough for Storm of the Century to sound impressive. We ambled down the lane, enjoying the bigness, marveling at how good life feels. Back home we cracked open the last gallon of water and settled back to read the paper - when - HUMMM.

Yep! Electricity. Oh joy! What luxury. What extravagance. What a dancing moment.

Now - I am ready to be cheerful and useful in adversity. But I will never ever pretend that I don’t love electric power.

Clean clothes, clean dishes, long gulping drinks of fresh water. Really. Life is more than good. It is splendid.

posted by Bess | 9:23 PM