West Wind

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A west wind has blown for the past three days, stirring up strong currents and whitecaps on the lake. Though it has brought waves of rain and made swimming difficult and canoeing doubtful, no one has minded. At camp, winds from the west bring pockets of passing weather, the kind that’s in and out quick. East winds are the ones that we cluck over here. Weather from the east tends to stay a while, socking us in and making us think about whether to take the kids to a museum in town, or maybe head to the Moultonborough Country Store for a dry diversion. So we look at the flag on the dock and see which way the wind blows, and no matter what the weather, if it’s coming from the west, we don’t sweat it. Even in the past three days, there have been periods of sunshine and stunning, scudding cloud formations. There were a couple of strong storms, too, with thunder booming from walls of gunmetal gray clouds. Those have passed over quickly, and the forest in which the camp is nestled is even more green and lush because of the rain.

Two evenings ago, after dinner, the west wind died down, and the lake calmed. Before long, though, the flag shifted direction before an east wind. There were thick clouds in the eastern sky. A few of us looked at each other, but someone said hopefully that they had checked the weather, and it’s supposed to be beautiful after another day or so. Others weren’t so sure as the east wind blew.

They say in places like the Great Lakes, where we live, and New England, where we visit, that if you don’t like the weather, wait a while, and it’ll change. Sure enough, in the night, the east wind died after a few hours, and the west wind returned, strong and chilly. Our tent faces the lake, which is west on this part of camp’s undulating shoreline, and wind-driven waves pounded the rocks just yards away. The tent canvas rippled and snapped, and the wooden platform creaked. The support poles shivered. Once, last year, an empty tent collapsed in a wind storm. But we’ve had a lot of wind storms here, and that’s the only tent collapse I’ve heard of, so I trust. There’s a lot of trust involved in camp: trust in our tents in all weather, trust that a huge hemlock or pine won’t fall on a tent in the night, trust that the community of campers will work together to overcome challenges. I suppose it’s no different than any significant activity we do in nature, where if we’re honest and smart about it, we acknowledge that we really don’t control a whole lot, so we control what we can, prepare as we ought, and trust that it will be enough. It makes me think about my experiences hiking in the White Mountains. Preparation and judgment are so important there, where weather systems converge and can bring instant winter in the summertime, but deep down, we know that some of the thrill we feel being there is that in the end, getting off the ridges and peaks in one piece partly comes down to luck.

Today dawned cool and clear, the west wind still blowing. The mountains across the lake are sharp against the blue sky. A few puffy clouds slide past, and strong currents and whitecaps race by. When the wind ebbs even a little, the warmth of the sun makes adults take off sweatshirts and children jump off the dock, and there’s a sense that maybe the wind will calm to a gentle breeze as the afternoon goes on. And if it doesn’t, with some luck the wind will remain in the west, and no one will mind.

 

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The Day the Trees Fell Down

fallen tree original exposure

Not long after the trees came crashing down in our neighborhood, and roof shingles peeled away and went swirling through the air, and property, but not people — thank goodness not people — was crushed under tons of fresh, wet wood, city and utility workers descended on the scene to wrangle the mayhem back into order as neighbors all around poured out of their houses. Two of these neighbors ordered pizzas, and after they were delivered, they thrust slices toward anyone who passed by. A tired city forester at first declined the offering, but with a little prodding, he gave a sigh of happiness, shook his head ruefully, chuckled, and gobbled down the slice. Everyone on the block looked at each other with wide eyes filled with wonder and relief and dismay.

Our street became a major thoroughfare, the only open connector between two arteries. The city bus rumbled past, diverted from its route, a first for us in over a decade of living here. A stream of traffic to rival that in any big city crawled along. As drivers crept by our house, inevitably speaking on their cell phones — “I’m gonna be late;” “Every road is closed;” “You gotta see what’s happened in this neighborhood!” — their eyes grew wide upon seeing the 40-foot tree stretched across our driveway and front yard, topmost branches poking at the door and windows of the house. Then, the drivers spoke rapidly into their phones, gesticulating while they reported to someone near or far what they had just witnessed. The tree’s roots, massive and torn and jutting crazily from clods of wet earth, faced the street. Some people sat or stood on the trunk or clambered onto the tangle of roots, posing for pictures. Though I understood their revels, I also hated them a little bit as I surveyed the damage and wondered where to start.

Mostly, though, I thought about how lucky we were that the tree had fallen at exactly the right angle to miss most of the house. It had peeled away the side of a gutter as easily as you’d bend a beer can, and it had knocked a planter askew under the front windows, but it hadn’t crushed the place, though it could have.

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After the tree was removed.

I had trouble taking my eyes off of one thing. Our basketball hoop lay mangled under the tree. Metal parts had been sheared by the force. Its base was torn and partially flattened, the backboard cracked, the rim bent. And it was that, more than anything else, that reminded me how close we had come to tragedy. Our kids play basketball out front a lot, so much so that our daughter’s response to the demise of the hoop was, “Oh nooooo! That’s our best toy!” If they had been playing when the wind came, they would have been killed.

When the storm hit, I was at work, arguing in court in another county, but neighbors described it as sudden, flying in from the southwest without warning. One described her friend urging, “Let’s get inside” only seconds before the wall of 75 mile-per-hour wind barreled in and a tree crashed down where they had been. She said that had it not been for her friend seemingly sensing a shift in the air and acting fast, she may well have been killed. Usually her son would have been with her outside. She wondered aloud whether he would have heard and obeyed the warning quickly enough as the storm roared in.

And so I looked at that basketball hoop over and over again, even as I worked with friends to cut away small branches so I could get into the house, even as dear neighbors invited us down the street for dinner in a lovely, burden-lifting gesture, and even as gawkers did as gawkers do. “What if?” went through my mind. “What if? What if?” Would our kids have had time to get away if they had been playing basketball in the driveway? They have played there in nearly all weathers. Before the wall of wind came, the weather wasn’t that bad, people said. Would it have kept the children inside, where they would have been safe? Or was it all too calm beforehand, and all too sudden when the storm broke?

The city foresters, masters of chainsaws and winches, took our fallen tree away before dark, dragging it into the maw of a massive chipper that reduced it to mulch in a roaring, grinding minute. The basketball hoop lay forlorn and demolished in the front yard, giving the place a junky look. That evening, as the light faded and the sky mellowed toward indigo splendor, I took a walk around the neighborhood. Some fallen trees remained; where they had been removed, the earth that had once held them was riven and disrupted into lumpy mounds of damp soil. The small garage of the house behind us lay under a tree, the building twisted and shoved off its slab and looking like it could collapse with a light touch or breath of wind. Around the corner, a massive tree limb lay on a neighbor’s front lawn. It had missed the house and even the cars parked below. Some of the bark was peeled away. Underneath was yellow-tan, raw wood. Its surface appeared silky smooth and shone in the dying light, nature’s perfection revealed. After staring at it for a while, I could not help but caress it, marveling that it felt as smooth as it looked.