As is true of Father Time, Mother Nature does have a habit of reminding us at unpredictable intervals of our ultimate powerlessness before the elemental forces of the unknowing universe.

Post Script to Irene:  The “I” of the Storm

Good Day to my Australian mates:

Thanks so much for your best wishes for our welfare during the storm.  You are kind to wish us all well, particularly from your vantage point down under, a great continent that has been so ravaged by persistent drought and unstoppable wildfires and suffocating heat waves and cataclysmic floods and even red rains over the last few years.  As is true of Father Time, Mother Nature does have a habit of reminding us at unpredictable intervals of our ultimate powerlessness before the elemental forces of the unknowing universe.  Hence we find ourselves struggling to fathom these mysteries, even as we strive for survival in ever increasing numbers around the globe in spite of the dwindling resource base.

Indeed and as you are well aware from the Net and other media, this vastly over-hyped tempest named Irene, as amplified and misjudged by the obedient herds of front-running sheep with the biggest microphones, far too many of whom are concentrated in the New York area and lack any deep understanding of the behavior and subtleties of these ferocious tropical beasts once they stray into the complexities of more temperate waters and more rugged terrain than the Gulf and South Atlantic coastal plain, was perceived at first to be a reality-TV bust when it found itself sapped of its source of colossal energy from the cooler waters as she moved northward above the continental shelf.  But the commentators, ignoring the precedent of so many huge and dangerous tropical cyclones of the past that did battle with the Appalachians (including the killer storm of 1938 that ravaged New England and Hurricane Agnes that sat over the coal country of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia  for days of deadly mayhem in June of 1972),  focused on the absence of the more cinematic moments that never arrived…the dramatic scenes of mountainous surges along the coast that toppled apartment buildings and leveled factories and  submerged and then obliterated  entire communities when Camille slammed into the Gulf Coast in 1969, bearing sustained Cat 5 winds in excess of 200 mph, and a Boxing Day-sized surge of twenty feet that swept inland like some mighty biblical prophecy.  Nor were there the concentrated, heart-rending, easily framed panoramas  of the drowning of a city built foolishly below sea level, thereby daring the random forces of the active planet to challenge humankind’s impudence, as there was in the rape of New Orleans by Katrina in 2005.

So for Irene, the overeager networks positioned their cameras on the beachheads as if this were a Spielberg reenactment of D-Day in the making, while the real drama was to be played out in the thousands of towns inland in the hills of New Jersey and then further up the Delaware and Hudson and Connecticut River valleys and then especially in the northern interior where the corrugations of New York’s Adirondacks and Vermont’s Green Mountains received the brunt of the blow from this colossus that had spawned off the coast of Africa a couple of weeks earlier in its mindless,  nomadic, cancerous  swirl of heat-powered  kinetics.  The energy of a storm nearly five hundred miles across was not concentrated in the eye wall that broke apart after doing substantial but not extraordinary damage to the power grid and housing stock  of the coastal Carolinas, Tidewater Virginia and the Delmarva peninsula.  No, that inverted maelstrom spread its fury across tens of thousands of square miles as it exploded toward the ancient granitic bulwarks of New England, and there was tiny Vermont with its vulnerable calendar-worthy charm in the quadrant most likely to receive the torrential rainfall.  The soils and reservoirs of the region, already saturated by an unusually rainy summer, were unable to soak up the dumping of several months of precipitation in one fearsome day and night of downpours.   Steep terrain conspired with the inexorable pull of gravitational forces and the stage was set for the floods that are still playing out across a region that was so in harmony with the balances of weather and climate in the temperate latitudes.  Wooden bridges that had withstood a century of blizzards and snowmelt were no match for the delayed impact of nature’s unforgiving hammer.  Roadways winding along the countless streams that shaped and defined the famously colorful and folded woodlands turned to so much sand in the onslaught of the angry waters hell-bent to find the path of least resistance to the great rivers that would spill southward into the several sounds and bays along the fractal Atlantic shoreline or northward to the St. Lawrence to seek its release into the mighty gulf that bears its name.

In a society enthralled but too often stupefied by a barrage of numbers, this numerically humiliated, downgraded, dissipated hurricane was dismissed as a failure, as if the public’s maw for devastation and tragedy can only be satiated by events that shred millions of families and individuals, along with their art and structures and security and  their dreams and their precious lives, all in one sadistically documented fell swoop.   What kind of nihilistic accounting in our social fabric explains this obsessive thirst for megadeath?  A sea wall collapsing and drowning an entire sector of a great city is of course far more memorable and more dramatically captured in digital media than the far less severe collective discomfort of millions left without power for days or of a thousand points of fright in many thousands of isolated micro-environments beyond the camera range of the eager weather channel reporters in their slickers and clichéd poses on boardwalks or standing like dolts in wind-feathered puddles.   Irene, like Agnes a long generation ago and other less remarkable destroyers of peace and prosperity, will be tabulated but not soon forgotten.  It will not rise to  the top of the lists in wind speeds or surge heights, but its mammoth economic toll in the desnely populated Northeast will stand as a reminder of the vulnerability we each have in this uncertain and painfully fragile and supposedly civilized world.  A country now so short on resolve to commit to the public works that made it great will grudgingly rebuild over time and perhaps that hopeful act of renewal will itself rekindle the contagious spirit and national pride that built the railroads, the hydroelectric dams and grid, the interstates and millions of miles of other highways, and a continental nation of myriad productive places for learning and working and pursuing happiness, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  But then we look at how slowly, if ever, the Gulf’s pride and joy, New Orleans, will take to recover.   And did the grotesque unfairness of that series of fatal mistakes compounded by prior decades of blatantly discriminatory policies create a wave of public spirit across “Can-do America”?  Apparently not.

Perhaps each of us wishes there were a special place apart from the whirlwinds for ourselves and our beloved families and our caring communities and tribes and nations and humanity itself to seek some shelter.  In every large hurricane there is an eye at the center of astounding silence and tranquility, often with blue skies and gulls lazily soaring aloft on updrafts after surviving the passage of the dark and turbulent eye wall with the highest winds.  Perhaps for twenty minutes or an hour as the meteorological monster rotates vertiginously on its path, carried along by invisible tracks laid down by ocean currents and geological remnants and ridges on tropical isles and coastal landforms, this transient sanctuary from the surrounding spiraling chaos will be overhead.  I have been in such an eye twice in my lifetime, and just as in a solar eclipse or in the presence of a triple rainbow on a late afternoon after a savage thunderstorm or when witnessing a bolide that blazes silently across the night sky and illuminates the entire landscape for a breathless stretch of heartbeats,  it was an experience of sheer amazement at the indescribable wonders of the world…for such things provide a rare and welcome respite from the torrents of irreversible time.  The eye of Irene’s galactic circulation was ripped apart by currents and wind shears in the atmosphere and by encounters with the irregular coastline of the Northeast and so it was not intact to put on that terrific show for residents of Megalopolis.  But perhaps we all long for some interlude in our lives between the initial passage of the eye wall from birth through the tumult of youth, the whirlpools of our young careers, and the frantic rush to achieve and accumulate and to replicate ourselves and nurture the young that fill our first half century…and the inevitable coming of the too rapidly encroaching opposite eye wall with its inescapably terminal  final winds raging from the other direction that arrive sometime in the next fifty years.   Without beating this metaphor like a dead horse, we can at least hope that such a restful refuge exists for a while for every man and woman, and for our wider families and communities as well.  For these can be the years or perhaps only the few short months of balanced fulfillment and appreciation and for looking upward at the glory of the skies and all around at the enveloping horizon, a  time of remembering what we have been, a time for finding contentment and meaning in what we are right now, and a final chance for rededicating ourselves to what we could still become…before we are swallowed up by the advancing wall from which there is no escape.  For each of us, this is the “I” of our own storm.  Let’s be selfish, for we have earned it:  May we each enjoy a few fleeting decades in the eye of the storm, sandwiched between the billions of years before we existed and the billions that will soon follow our swift passage.

The very best to all my friends and relatives down under,

Roy Van Til,

Vienna. Maine

p.s.  My part of Maine in the foothills known as the Kennebec Highlands was spared the wrath of Irene.  The rains were abundant and the winds moderate, but the remnants of the tropical storm went a hundred miles or more west and north of us along the Canadian border, so were spared the fate of the communities in Vermont to the west of that track.  But as I walk the woodlands with my dogs, there are two great trees rotting on the forest floor, aligned in exactly opposite directions.  The last times we had such a tropical storm take a run at the jagged headlands of Maine’s rock-bound coast were in 1985 and 1991 when hurricanes Gloria and Bob tried to deliver a shot to the most northeasterly state.  Here in Vienna we are sixty miles from the ocean, so the immediate coastal effects are never a problem for us.  And the rainfall was managed well by the terrain so there was no massive flooding on those two occasions in our area.  But the balsam firs still lie there, if one looks closely at the forest forensics, providing mute witness to the wind directions of the strongest gusts of those last two storms, but Irene left no such memento among the seven thousand large trees on this property.  It is a twenty-mile walk, for those crazy enough to take it, around the “block” in which my land is an insignificant polygon on the Geodetic Survey map.   The mixed forest here contains lots of white pine, with eastern hemlock along the streambeds, sugar and red maple by the score, a scattering of northern red oak, many weedy white and yellow and gray birch, some flickering aspen and annoying speckled alders cluttering the edges of fields, countless fir and spruce with their Christmas tree spires, and many other species that cover this parcel along both sides of what we say is Arden;s Brook in the deep ravine behind my home, a 10-foot wide boulder-strewn natural staircase, its cool waters and seasonal runoff cascading along jauntily toward Crowell Pond and then to the Sandy and the Kennebec on down to Merrymeeting Bay.    This seems as good a location as any to weather the ineffable, isolated, excruciatingly brief “I” of life’s storm.