Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Snap, Crackle, Fall … and Fade to Black

by Zinta Aistars

A little like a war zone, I thought, jumping out of bed for the sixth time during the night, trotting from window to window to look outside for fallen trees or sparking wires. When the trees cracked and fell, they sounded like gunfire. The night was filled with sirens, fire trucks racing down the street, police cars churning around corners, and when the trees fell on power lines, flames licked up into the icy air or sputtered orange sparks. At times, I could see an eerie green glow rise up beyond the neighborhood, then disappear again.

Not war. This was climate change. Weather extremes that are taking us through overheated summers into brutal winters, shaking us up between with earthquakes and hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. Tonight, it was an ice storm.

Sloopy snow smattered the windows, then turned to pellets of ice, glazing everything on contact. Every surface shone. The trees were holding more and more weight, until some of them snapped and fell to their death.

The power had gone out shortly after midnight. That didn’t worry me, although I did recall a freezer full of expensive organic meats and grass-fed beef. I had just recently stocked up. Otherwise, the quickly dropping temperature in the house was still quite tolerable. After all, just a little over a week ago, I was camping out in the snow in a summer tent with screen windows and dog sledding through the forest. Heck, this was a breeze …

It was the trees that grieved me. Each one was precious, mine or my neighbors'. I looked out on the street lined with houses, all dark, all silent under the onslaught. The road itself was a mess of rough ice—not a smooth sheet, but frozen slush, scarred with deep tracks.

I slept off and on, my dog curled at my feet, quick to jump up, quick to bark at the nameless enemy. My cat touched a damp nose to my cheek, nudging me to let her in under the warmer blankets.

At first faint light, we rose, all three of us, and I bundled myself in a thick old sweater. The icy rain was still coming down, hitting the house like pellets.

No hot coffee. Now, that hurt. A little left in the coffee pot from yesterday, I poured it into a mug and drank it cold. Candles … gathered all that I could find, placing them strategically through the house. The magic of light, its warm glow, brought immediate comfort. Dog needed out, so I put on boots and hooded coat, mittens, scarf, and the two of us went out to explore the backyard.

See, an animal’s readiness to enjoy. What’s a storm to my old chow pup? He thought it funny that the snow crunched beneath his paws and danced a little, watching it crack. He gnawed at the edges like candy. He rolled on the pocked white surface, rolling this way and that, squirming and wiggling across the ice. An animal’s joy, ready for whatever comes and finding its good place. I had to smile. Even contemplated rolling and squiggling with him, but tree branches cold-kissed my face instead, drawing away my attention.

All my trees leaned over me, heavy with their burden. Bare knuckles of twigs tapped my shoulder. The shorter evergreens were bent over almost double, like tired old men, enthusiasm lost. A slender “trash” tree behind the shed had snapped and spread its crown across the yard. I didn’t know what kind of tree it was—it had grown like a weed in the shade and I hadn’t the heart to pull such appetite for life out of the ground. By now, it’d grown some fifty feet tall. Forty of that now smashed ungloriously back down to icy earth.

I left the dog outside, standing there in center yard, barking into the chill air, nose to pale gray sky, listening to his own echo.

A cell phone was my last connection to that outer world, and a few quick clicks got me through to the electric company’s message that power would be out for several more days. I would have to save those good roasts and steaks and chops now before they began to thaw. My parents across town would surely have room in their freezer. The power outage hadn’t reached as far as them.

I watched out the window as I packed a cooler. Neighbors had come out of their homes and were wandering the street, walking down its center, like lost souls. Looking for light. Seeking a current of energy. They stood at the end of their driveways, looking down the street, looking up the street, gazing up at the bleak sky.

Was the earth letting us know? Enough?

Long ago.

Before I’d move the cooler of food, before I packed the three of us—woman, dog and cat—into my car, I would explore the area for signs of electric life. Four ways into and out of my neighborhood. I turned one way, to find downed power lines, snapping like black snakes across the road. Yellow police tape already stretched across that way, orange barrels of warning not to cross. One exit closed. Then two: more lines down. Then three. The main road out had a snarl of black cord lying in a heap, dead center.

I went back to pack faster. We’d get stuck here, the three of us sillies and our thawing meat. The furry ones might appreciate it, but I preferred mine less rare. A bag of clothes to get me to work the next day, and we were off, three refugees, seeking warmer shelter.

Still standing in the drive, I heard another blast. Like a cannon firing an iron ball, splitting the air. Then splitting, tearing wood, and the tree in a neighbor’s yard, two houses down, sank as if kneeling, then fell straight across the yard. Another fallen soldier.

My heart squeezed. Another life done, and with it, home for countless tiny birds and animals.

Yet odd, how at moments there was beauty, too, in this battle zone. The light was too pale to catch in the icy facets, but the shrubs with leftover red berries from last fall clanked like crystal bells. Twigs clicked like castanets. There was a faint music in the air, if a funeral march or a dance of defiance, I could not yet tell.

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