I made baked fish for supper last night – thick thawed steaks of mahi-mahi, the gift of an acquaintance who had caught them herself in a fishing trip off North Carolina. I soaked them in lemon juice and smothered them under a thick blanket of whole wheat bread crumbs that had been sauteed in olive oil with cumin, coriander and plenty of basil and garlic. It was delicious, but too plentiful; I ate too much. Exhausted as I was when I finally went to bed, I woke after several hours, feeling the fish in my stomach and listening to the downpour on the roof.
This is our first major winter storm here in central Pennsylvania. All night and into the morning – continuing even as I type at 8:30 – hard rain has been falling and freezing, falling and dripping and freezing. As the small hours crawled by, I could hear the muffled cracks and crashes of trees giving way under the weight of ice. Twice when I got up, the digital clock at the foot of the stairs was flashing, but miraculously, the electricity stayed on. The second time, I stayed up to read for a little while. The book I grabbed was Carolyn Forché’s The Angel of History, where I found the following line:
Nuit blanche, your nights awake and the white window winter-locked.
I poked my head outside at one point around 4:30 and noticed a light in the far window of the main house. My father, too, was awake. Sometimes I think of insomnia as the family curse. Every family needs a good curse, don’t you agree?
At quarter after six, following a brief hour of sleep, I rise for the final time, anxious to brew my coffee and take a shower before the power goes. I’m out on the porch by 6:35, cradling my mug and listening to the fuselage. If you’ve never been through a major ice storm, let me tell you, it sounds like war. The difference with this one is the sheer volume of water in the stream, whose roaring drowns out most smaller breaks. What I hear are the sharp rendings of limbs, the explosive cracks of trunks snapped halfway up, and the thunderous crashes of full-sized trees giving way at the roots.
There are hundreds of acres of woods in all directions, and a high percentage of canopy-height trees are weedy, first-succession species such as black locust, black cherry and scarlet oak, many of them near the end of their natural life span of 80-120 years. The only thing preventing me from accepting this damage with complete equanimity is the knowledge that many parts of the forest may never successfully regenerate, beset as it is by a triple threat of white-tailed deer, invasive trees and shrubs, and acid precipitation. Usually one thinks of the effects of acid rain in terms of damage to the soil and water, but during ice storms, the trees and shrubs are encased in acidic armor that may last for days at a time. I can’t believe this doesn’t do a lot of damage, especially to evergreens like hemlocks and mountain laurel.
One thing I don’t have to worry about, however, is direct damage to the houses. Those farmers knew what they were doing when they planted their houses in the middle of large clearings, out of reach of any but a few ornamental trees. Usually I resent this distance between my house and the woods, but this morning I’m grateful for it.
The day dawns on an eerie and beautiful landscape. Ice storms of this severity have occurred with increasing frequency over the past thirty years – now they come as often as once every three to four years – but this is the first I can remember when the ground was completely bare of snow. The effect therefore is of pure, unmitigated crystal, white from a distance only in the way that cut glass appears white. If I had a camera and put a picture up here for you to look at, you’d probably imagine that every surface would answer a curious tap with a resonant ding. But such beauty weighs heavily on the real world. Even just reading about it, you might picture sleek, transparent body suits for every branch. But all the twigs droop with closely spaced, finger-long icicles, racks and racks of little knives – and that’s where the extra, fatal bit of load comes from. The 20-foot-tall red cedar tree in my herb garden is bent completely over, its head to the ground. In desperation, I get the broom from the kitchen and give it a few nudges to see if I can shake any of the ice loose. All I manage to do is roust out a couple of terrified sparrows.
I take my umbrella and go for a walk around the field – the woods are too dangerous. Now I can watch as well as listen to the limbs and trees crash down, at the rate of several a minute. When the big ones go over, they send up a brief splash of ice fragments. They also trim limbs and branches from their neighbors, which may not be entirely unwelcome. Any time I see a branch or limb breaking loose, I wonder if it isn’t just the radical amputation the parent tree needs to take the weight off the main trunk. It’s all in the architecture, of course. Trees that are built for the long haul, such as tulip poplars and white oaks, are masters at dropping the odd limb and quickly healing over the wound before infections can enter. You’d think hemlocks and white pines, with the tremendous weight of ice on their needles, would – like my red cedar – be the first to go. But as I survey the line of hundred year-old white pines along the driveway, I can see how easily each ice-laden limb rests its weight on the limb below. Hemlocks and spruce are even better at this, folding up like umbrellas under a heavy layer of snow or ice. Hence their tendency to eventually dominate northern forests, given a few centuries of winter storms to weed out the competition.
I approach as close as I dare to the woods on the northeast side of the field, above Margaret’s old house. Five large, downed trees – black cherries and locusts – stretch out into the field. Beyond, it looks as if at least a quarter of the trees have been felled or badly dismembered by the ice.
Dramatic and beautiful as this all may seem, I’m keenly hoping for a rapid rise in temperature. I don’t believe in petitionary prayer, but do try to picture, as hard as I can, ice falling off the trees: big frozen swordfish-size chunks dropping from the limbs, schools of ice-minnows slipping from the crowns. I visualize Marianne Moore’s “Octopus of Ice” dissolving into harmless calamari. But really, these things that are wreaking havoc now are more like giant squid with their sinister, cigar-shaped heads anchored upside-down to the boles of trees and their tentacles poised, terrible and still. To them, perhaps, the forest is a sideshow, and they are waiting for some properly monstrous prey – as if the fish I ate for supper had grown into a whale in my belly and I was soon to deliver it on the never-never shoreline of Nineveh, that great city. The rain shows no sign of letting up.