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The tears of the red cedar. February 24, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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If you live on the East Coast, you might recall the unseasonable snowstorm that swept over us all this past October, when the deciduous trees still had their leaves and were unprepared to bear the full weight of a heavy, wet snow, which lingered in the freakish subfreezing temperatures.

The result was fallen trees, snapped branches, and downed power lines, leaving tens of thousands—including our friend Ben and Silence Dogood—without power for a week or more. This would have been demoralizing enough without those subfreezing temps, which made the risk of frozen, and subsequently burst, pipes very real, along with the astronomical costs for replacing the pipes and dealing with the damage. Thank God we have a backup woodstove here at Hawk’s Haven that was able to keep the floors, and thus the pipes, above freezing.

People these days aren’t used to living in the dark and cold, without heat, stoves (if electric), or even running water or plumbing (if, like us, you’re on a well). And rather than blaming climate change or an act of God, they blamed their power companies. 

Our own power company apparently decided to do something about it: They came down our road this week, cutting off all tree branches that came anywhere near a road or power line.

Now, mind you, free tree-trimming is nothing to sneeze at in a time when arborists’ prices are so astronomical that few homeowners can afford them. (Who has thousands of dollars lying around to pay for a professional to take down a tree?) And the power company tried to be considerate, cutting downed branches into fireplace-sized logs and stacking them neatly on each homeowner’s lawn, providing mounds of free wood chips when homeowners requested them, and tidying up so there was virtually no debris left after their trucks had passed.  

Our friend Ben would have had nothing but praise for the power company were it not for our red cedar (Juniperus virginiana, aka Eastern red cedar). Silence Dogood and I have been in awe of this majestic specimen since we first came to Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. It towers over the front of our property, producing thousands of juniper berries each year, giving food and shelter to untold numbers of birds year-round, but especially when winter cuts off so many other sources of nourishment and would otherwise expose them to the cold and to hungry predators. It defines our entire front yard.

So you can imagine my horror when I saw what the tree-trimmers had done. While expressing sensitivity towards every other tree on the road, they had cut the entire street-facing part of our cedar tree back to the trunk, halving it and turning it into a parody of its former self, a two-dimensional, see-through object that even the smallest bird would have a hard time sheltering in. No matter that it actually didn’t extend over the road. No matter that evergreens, unlike deciduous trees, are equipped by nature to bear snow loads without breaking, even though they still have their leaves/needles. Not one single evergreen branch, much less tree, broke or toppled during that terrible freak October storm. 

Our friend Ben was in shock when I saw what the power company had done. I drove up and down the road to make sure, and yes, ours was the only tree that had been brutalized like this. I can’t imagine what would have caused the power company employees to do such a thing.

My eyes dry and burning, I walked up to our beloved tree and put my hand on an open wound from its severed branches. It was red like a wound, as its name implies, but dry to my touch, like my outraged eyes. And yet, when I returned indoors, I could feel its tears, sticky on my hand, like the ones I longed to shed on its behalf. No doubt I’ll feel their imprint ’til I die.

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Ice cubes from heaven. June 11, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Last night, we experienced our first hailstorm here at Hawk’s Haven. It had been a day of sickening, unseasonable 100-degree heat and just under 100% humidity. (100% humidity is rain, as our friend Ben had fixed in my youthful brain by a professor who always used that as a trick question.) Weather.com had promised rain at some point during the day, and our friend Ben was scanning the skies anxiously, since if it didn’t rain, tomorrow the veggie beds would have to be watered—my least-favorite chore, since it entails hauling innumerable plastic milk jugs of water from the house to the sunny back of the property, where the veggie beds are, and then back to the house to refill, and repeat, repeat, repeat. Agh.

I was starting to lose hope and resign myself to staggering around in the ongoing heat and humidity with the water, as the skies remained sunny. Then at 6:30 p.m., as I went out to turn the lights off in the greenhouse, an odd thing happened. It began raining, very lightly, out of the sunny, cloudless sky. I could hear thunder in the distance, but even there, it didn’t look particularly dark. I began looking for rainbows, but there were none, despite the sun, so eventually I went back inside, bemused.

Sitting at the computer a few minutes later, I saw that it had begun raining in earnest, sheeting down, though the skies still didn’t seem especially dark. Perhaps, I belatedly realized, that was because of all the lightning cracking through the sky. Dr. Franklin notwithstanding, our friend Ben is not fond of lightning, since I have pretty much zero interest in seeing myself, Silence Dogood, our animals, the car, house, Pullet Palace, greenhouse, studio, trees, etc. etc. reduced to charred, smoking ruins. And humid, 100-degree weather would be a bad time for the power to fail. Bad. Very bad. Still, at least now I wouldn’t have to water. There’s a silver lining to every cloud.

Then the hail started. Clunk! CLUNK! It rattled off the air conditioner in the office window. Looking up, startled, out friend Ben could not believe my eyes. It really was hail. The heavens were tossing down ice at us in the 100-degree heat. I went into the kitchen to get a better look.

Clunk! CLUNK!!! The ice smashed against the kitchen skylight, thunked against the sliding glass deck doors, rolled like marbles across the deck. Already, water stood in pools in low parts of the yard. Hawk Run, the normally gentle stream that divides the back of the property from the house, roared by, a muddy torrent, just beneath the bridge that linked the backyard to the deck. It seemed just minutes since the rain had started.

Lightning lit the sky as ice-cube-size hail rained deafeningly against the deck and skylight, a joined battle, the hail the gunfire, the thunder, cannons. The lights flickered on, off, on, off, as though sending a signal to the night, begging for help from parts unknown. Our friend Ben had seen tiny, pea-sized hail a few times in childhood winters. But huge hail in summer? It beggared belief.

Most of the household was holding up surprisingly well. The parrots, led by the big yellow-naped Amazon, Plutarch, were enjoying all the chaos and activity, keeping up a running commentary. Silence and our golden retriever, Molly, who both loathe thunder, remained comparatively calm, perhaps stunned by the unseasonable turn of events. Our dimwitted cat Linus and the older cat, Athena, slept on undisturbed. Only the smartest cat, Layla, was hysterical. Running from room to room, crying pitifully, she only calmed when Silence stayed with her, petting her and crooning soothingly as the gunfire-like barrage continued.

And continue it did, for two hours. Our friend Ben was astonished—I’d have thought a storm of such ferocity would either blow itself out of blow over and continue on its path of destruction. But minute followed minute, the wind roaring, the hail rattling, the rain sheeting, the lights flashing on and off. Eventually, the hail became marble- rather than ice-cube size, though it then fell thicker than ever. Ice marbles coated the deck, shone in the grass, filled the cat bowls. Hawk Run roared, spilling over its banks as it swept towards an unknown sea. The pools in the yard swelled to lakes.

Then it was over. Even at 8:30, the sky was still pale, and, astonishingly, our friend Ben could see the red of sunset illuminating the western horizon. The lights steadied; the air conditioner hummed. The parrots quieted, and Layla stood up, shook herself, and strolled off as though awakening from a bad dream. The house was still standing. We were still standing. Conversation seemed frivolous in the wake of what we had seen: ice cubes raining from the hot, humid, smothering sky. An incomprehensible thing. Our friend Ben thought of primitive people, what they would have made of this mystery. Surely the gods had spoken, but what were they saying?

This morning, our friend Ben took Molly for her walk amid the mud and downed branches and leaves. The deck was coated not with ice but with debris from the maples and walnuts. Once I’d returned Molly to the house, fed the outdoor cats, and turned the lights on in the greenhouse, I wandered the property, assessing the damage. Lots of fallen twigs and limbs to pick up. The huge, mustard-yellow Vietnamese urn blown off its base and rolled across the yard (mercifully unbroken). The lid blown off the firepit. Our lettuce and Swiss chard in shreds. Huge tears in our hostas and cannas. Most of the peaches knocked off the tree (a blessing in disguise—now I won’t have to thin them). The entire backyard a muddy mess, the grass bent in wave-tracks of mud punctuated with leaves, branches, and debris. The one large leaf on my cherished variegated walnut seedling knocked off, leaving two small fronds and making the infant plant even more vulnerable. The raspberries had taken a tremendous beating just as they were setting a heavy crop of berries.

On the plus side, the Red Rogue, our bright red, piratical little VW Golf, appeared undented. No trees or massive branches had fallen. The tomatoes, peppers, cukes, squash, onions, potatoes, garlic, strawberries, and herbs seemed unscathed. The chickens and even the bunny were not only undaunted, but were agitating furiously for breakfast. The apples, pears, grapes, and pluot seemed to have made it through without damage to leaf or fruit. Most of the container plants on the deck came through just fine. Our friend Ben had gotten to see an amazing thing, Nature at her most awesome. And, of course, now I don’t have to water the veggie beds!

Of course, many questions remain unanswered. Our friend Ben and Silence are very worried about the crops our CSA and all the local farmers are growing. We’re concerned about friends whose gardens are real showplaces—we were just having lunch and a garden tour at one such friend’s house yesterday. And we still don’t understand how there could be ice falling from the 100-degree sky! If you know the answer to this mystery, please clue us in. We’d appreciate it!