Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Demise of Max

She came with plenty of warning, barreling in from hundreds of miles east toward the eastern seaboard at a steady 28 miles per hour. Without any help from other storm systems also heading toward Baltimore, Hurricane Sandy was a formidable beast in her own right, cutting a wind-field swath an unprecedented 800 miles across, with record-breaking low pressure readings in her eye, and propelling sustained winds of 80-95 miles per hour as she passed over Cuba and the Bahamas, leaving death and destruction in her wake.

As she converged on Baltimore and the rest of the east coast, Hurricane Sandy crashed into another storm arriving from the west, as well as an arctic front coming in from the north, creating what was being referred to in the news as a superstorm. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, this confluence of atmospheric events was occurring on a full moon, when gravitational pulls would be causing higher tides than normal. Meteorologists reported that there were no computer models which could accurately predict what would happen. No hurricane of this size had ever made landfall in the United States this late in the season – late enough to meet a strong Nor’easter packing blizzard levels of snow on its way down from Canada.

I prepared the best I could. I put all my patio furniture away, took down the ten-foot-tall scarecrow who oversees the autumn display in my front yard, picked the last of my tomatoes, bought duct tape and zip ties and bottled water. And then I waited, along with my fellow mid-Atlantic residents, for Sandy’s arrival.

Me, left, with Liz, center, and Katie, right

As the winds picked up and the rain began to lash, I got a call from the owner of the stable where I keep my horse, Chubby, just a mile down the road from my home in Baltimore County. Could I come help with the evening feeding? The 40 horses at the farm were a bit spooked by the bluster and the more hands on deck when their dinners were served, the better. Meteorologists were predicting the worst of the winds to hit between 5:00 p.m. Monday evening and 2:00 a.m. Tuesday morning. Bundled up in slickers and hoods, five of us started serving rations of equine grain at 4:00 p.m. to try to beat the gale and get all the mares and geldings fed and sheltered before the worst of the storm, and darkness, fell.

Once I was safely back home down the street, I hunkered down. Rain water cascaded down my exterior basement steps and seeped in around the pipe leading to my well pump. I took the shop-vac down into my primitive, dirt-walled cellar, hand-dug beneath the kitchen in the 1930s when my 1862-era farmhouse first obtained electricity, and vacuumed up the water as fast as it was coming in. I lit candles around the house in anticipation of losing power and built a fire in my fireplace for supplemental warmth. The gale howling outside was intense. My lights flickered but never went out, and when I finally succumbed to nervous exhaustion and went to bed, I actually slept quite well – one of the benefits of extremely low atmospheric pressure.

I didn’t hear the crash in the din of the squall. But I awoke in the morning to find that one of the gigantic and much beloved trees on my two acres had been felled by Sandy’s intensity. As with all five of the historic trees on my property, this one had not only a name, but a face, as well. Maxwell was the weakest of my prize specimens, but no less beloved. When his root system began to give way several years ago and he developed a significant crack up his middle which visibly heaved and audibly creaked in the wind, I couldn’t bear to chop him down, so I had a tree service cut away a third of his crown believing, as I’d been advised, that once relieved of so much of his mass, Max would die slowly in place over several years without toppling over.

I marveled at his resurgence the following spring and in the years after his pruning, when he seemed to defy all odds and regained a robust, leafy stature. And I worried anew a few weeks ago, when it seemed that Max had tilted ever so slightly in the direction of his weaker side. It was hard to tell with a tree so massive. Perhaps it was only my imagination. I chose denial, as we so often do with events we’d rather forestall. Indeed, I had gone around, in the hours before Sandy’s arrival, and talked to each of my giants. Be strong, I whispered. Stand your ground in the coming gale.

But there was no denying fate now. My beloved Max was on the ground, splayed out like a man done in by a massive coronary. He took out a good-sized mulberry tree on his way down, and crushed a fence and a garden gate. But that was all. In his closing lurch, my beloved ent had fallen in a direction that caused no harm to human or essential structure. For this I was grateful.

In assessing the consequence of Sandy’s wrath, my tour of the property eventually took me around to the front of my farmhouse. And there I was greeted by another unwelcome surprise. Peter and Paul stand side-by-side just beyond my front porch, guarding my house like sentinels. Like Max, they are both 150-year-old oak trees, but unlike Max, Peter and Paul are hearty and healthy. Paul, in fact, is in contention to be declared the third largest white oak in Maryland, so I’m talking about some trees of significant size here. In any event, one of them had apparently dropped a limb in the night. Not sure which of the two it was, and it doesn’t really matter. The branch crashed into the back of my Honda Civic, smashing the rear windshield and denting the roof and the rear quarter-panel.

As Tuesday’s gray dawn gave way to leaden daylight, I stood in the pelting rain and fashioned a temporary covering for my car’s rear window out of visqueen and duct tape. At least I still had electricity in my home for heat and water and cooking. I had a comfortable shelter unharmed by the storm. My animals and I were all safe. And I had insurance.

As I write this, six million households are still without power on the east coast. Over 50 people lost their lives in the hurricane’s fury. In the process of returning my ten-foot scarecrow yesterday to his post at the corner of my little piece of terra firma, I considered how truly lucky I am to have come through a storm of such significance with so little to complain about. I will miss Max deeply. But he will be turned into firewood to keep me warm in the years ahead and, as such, will continue to provide good cheer and comfort with his presence. I couldn’t ask for more.
Happy Halloween,

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