Weather can be as capricious as a grizzly bear in a foul mood.
Blow ye winds westerly
An oily boil of a thunderstorm tumbled black and grey from the northwest on a tropical jungle afternoon that had somehow migrated from South America to the North Country. For most of the week record heat and humidity seemed just another footnote in the margins of a summer-long treatise on the adversities of climate change, but now the overheated and super-soaked land and sky were throwing a weather temper tantrum, presaged by bolts of lightning and black-based cumulonimbus clouds that rolled in from low on the horizon and quickly blotted out the sky.
We moved the dogs from their kennel runs to the screened-in deck, closed the windows in the house, parked the car and pickup in the garage, put away all the yardwork tools, and sat on the deck, a pitcher of iced tea at hand, to watch another performance of The Storm Gods, this June’s recurring drama. This was not the first big rainstorm of the season. We are in the midst of a wettest-ever June, with at least three rainfalls of two to three inches, each over over a span of twenty-four hours or less. This one would further damage the driveway and delay haying another few days, but we have become almost accustomed to dealing with the woes of a soggy summer.
Then the winds came.
Twenty, thirty, forty mile-per-hour winds, with gusts up into the sixties. For a violent hour winds blasted and howled, and our forest of hardwood trees swayed and moaned. The woodlands are especially lush this wet year, treetops spreading and bearing a canopy of foliage far greater than anything we have seen in our thirty-plus years on the farm. Flailed by the storm, each tree was a fully-rigged clipper ship, leafy sails billowing, trunk masts bowed, the yardarms of upswept boughs bending. But unlike the Yankee Clipper, trees are not sea-kites that can lift in the wind and race away along the slippery seam where ocean melds with sky. Moored to the ground, they bent, bent, bent – and broke.
We heard them crack, then shatter. One huge elm tree’s death sounded like a burst of fireworks as its trunk exploded twenty feet above the ground and its top crashed down through the branches of a half-dozen nearby trees, clutching at and snapping off their branches like a drowning swimmer grabbing wildly at the arms of would-be rescuers. Most of the doomed trees succumbed with a slow-motion splintering as boughs and trunks reached the limit of their strength and flexibility and gave way.
The wind slashed a hundred-yard-wide swath through the woods. In the unpredictable way of storms, this one had unleashed not the whirling vortex of a tornado but straight-line winds through the coulee on the east side of our farm, a steep, tree-covered limestone bluff where our driveway cautiously winds its way up to our farmyard. The wind broke off the tops of a dozen or more trees through the valley, including five along the edges of the driveway. Less than a hundred yards uphill, the apple tree and cherry tree lost only a few small branches. Not a shingle was ruffled on the house, but the hollyhocks on the south side of the garage took a terrible beating. Our electrical lines held firm, but fallen trees and lightning severed other parts of the grid across the county. We were without power for eleven hours.
Weather can be as capricious as a grizzly bear in a foul mood.
When the core of the storm passed to the east and the rain slowed to a drizzle, I walked the driveway to assess the damage and plan the cleanup. Near the top, half of one elm had snapped and was caught in the adjacent tree, a “widow-maker” waiting to fall on anyone who tried to cut or pull it down. Fortunately, it had fallen parallel to the driveway, not across, so there it will hang until the demise of its supporting tree or the next woods-rending storm blows it down, whichever comes first.
Farther down the drive, the storm had been less accommodating.
The largest limb of a big butternut had sheared off, snared the mainsail of a weirdly-limbed walnut, entangled itself with the grape vine rigging of a boxelder on the opposite side of the drive, and brought all five hundred pounds of branches and vines and leaves down atop a four-inch, perfectly shaped walnut. The driveway was closed off by a wall of foliage that looked like the hedge from hell the Wicked Queen had conjured to grow around the castle of a somnambulant Sleeping Beauty.
I wove a tow rope around and through the thickest branches, tied the bitter end to the hitch on my pickup, and pulled the witch’s tangle down to where I could cut it up with a chainsaw – without the biggest parts of it falling on me. Up the face of the bluff I could see another six or seven trees that had been broken by the storm, their heavily leaved branches hanging like broken wings. I had no pangs of sadness for the boxelders, but a hundred-year-old oak and a few of the more stately walnut trees had been longtime friends of mine. And the gnarled old butternut that had its largest limb torn off was my homecoming landmark at the end of the work day for more than twenty-five years.
Every disaster plants the seeds of opportunity, we’re told. For days after the windstorm I was crushed by the disaster, bereft as I put my hands on the trunks of mangled trees that I had come to know through three decades of their slow growth and my slow aging. But before the week was over I began to appreciate the opportunity the red gods of nature had offered: delivery of one winter’s supply of firewood, albeit the wood would have to cure a couple years before we could split it and stack it in pile destined for the wood stove.
Scientists tell us we must expect more and more of these severe weather events as the halcyon days of the world climate system we have known all our lives come to an end. A North Country thunderstorm with high winds will seem minor indeed when increasing global warming unleashes ever more volatile tornadoes, hurricanes, typhoons, blizzards, floods, droughts…
Flooding has been horrendous in the North Country for the past two years, but for me nothing has brought home the perils of this frightening new age of weather extremes as did the slash of straight-line wind through our woods. Small as the damage may seem in the grand scheme of things, this is personal – our woodlands, which we have nurtured and cherished half our lives.
We are so fortunate to live in this place, and in this brief moment of the Holocene age, where we can be in harmony with the land, with the wild. Like all good things, we want to think it will go on and on, forever, and it is disheartening to know it may be nearing its end.
More stories about life in the North Country are published in my five collections of essays and two novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page