The acrid smell of smoke, box elder bugs flitting about, the season’s first lacewing, delicate as a snowflake.
For a moment I take it all in, the musty smell of prairie at winter’s end, the low gray ceiling, the gently rounded hills tinged russet and ochre, and atop the highest ridge a single lightning-blasted spar of a cedar like some weatherworn sentinel, yet surprisingly resilient, showing a little more regrowth each year. From it I take as much comfort as I can, and then cross the yard and slip between two strands of barbed wire to enter my neighbor’s field.
Like everything else, the fence took a beating during last December’s ice storm. Severed strands of wire lie curled against tottering posts or writhe snake-like through the grass. What’s not broken sags under the weight of fallen branches, some six inches thick. Dozens of smaller trees are draped across the wire or collapsed on the far side like the Confederate dead heaped by the fence on the Hagerstown Road in the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady. An inglorious and abrupt finale, theirs under a withering enfilade of musketry, these shattered trees under an armored layer of ice.
It’s one thing to stare out the window on an apocalyptic treescape with a vague idea of cleaning it up later, and quite another to get in the middle of it with only a bow saw, muscles unused to hard labor and the proverbial clock ticking its own peculiar form of deadline. The city’s promise to remove all tree limbs if placed beside the road came with a catch: the work must be completed by the end of March. That leaves me two weeks or so, less when figuring in the days I’m at the office.
The real question is always where to begin when faced with so enormous a task. Nearest the road, I reckon, and start dragging the smaller limbs toward the fence. Many are entwined and tangled into unyielding masses that require judicious yanking and swearing. Underfoot the deep grass conceals downed timber from years past, a sort of hidden graveyard of tree bones, making footing treacherous. Laced throughout are sharpened stakes poking up through the soil like pungee sticks, the outcome of branches plowing into the ground point-first and shearing off under the implacable weight of winter.
When I get to the fence I toss them over to start a pile. The road dips toward the town proper and the river beyond, and past the burned pastures I spy a dozen more bristling piles rising like unkempt tombstones beneath the once-majestic woods. Almost four months have passed since the storm and still the town looks like a war zone. But the weather has finally relented and the sound of chainsaws comes like the distant drone of bees, and in that there is a measure of hope, too.
Back and forth I weave through the lethal field, jerking out the sharp stakes whenever I find them. Larger boles and entire trees, mostly narrow and tall, are sawed into manageable lengths. Before long I’m sweating fiercely beneath my sweatshirt; the experience is refreshing after the long cold months. Fallen timber behind the shed goes into the brush pile, rising ever higher like some woodsy megachurch for all creatures large and small.
As I work, I recall the sound of their falling, brittle in the darkness. It’s a sound I will carry with me to the grave.
I arrive at the thickest trunk and take stock. The smaller limbs go first, then propping a large rock under the main portion, I start segmenting it into manageable lengths. The wood is still green and shockingly heavy. Lifting one end straight up, I kneel and center the piece on one shoulder and stand up with it more or less balanced. In this way I stagger to the fence and tilt it over.
A second length is even heavier, making my shoulder feel raw and blistered. When I get back to the pile I take off my gloves and plop down in the grass. I’m just about done in.
They tell me the hailstorm of 1974 carpet-bombed the city with an almost preternatural ruthlessness, shredding trees of each leaf and twig, shattering every north-facing window and car windshield, stripping roofs, obliterating the greenhouse and hammering thousands of golf-ball-sized indentations into wood, siding and metal. The scars are still visible on several buildings in town, notably the old Masonic Lodge and the wooden counter of the State Bank of Blue Rapids. About the only thing that didn’t suffer damage was the stonework of the venerable old limestone structures, many of which were raised in the late 1800s. They tell me when the storm was over the silence was unlike anything they had ever heard. Residents emerged from their battered homes shocked into muteness. No birds sang. The birds were all dead.
Two years later, when we first visited, I never noticed. Now, surrounded by splintered trees, I take a quick survey of our yard. The elms, half-dead to begin with, may never recover. The willow across the street lies prostrate, roots upended, exposed to a sky imagined only through the physics of photosynthesis. Mounds of branches scattered below the maple show a wholesale divestiture though the tree itself appears sound enough. Tree tops everywhere are gone, leaving skeletal arms to implore an unyielding heaven.
I was raised in a desert place and find the destruction heartbreaking. By the time the trees recover I fear I will be an old man, living in my memories as the trees live in theirs. Together we look toward the hills and that lone battle-scarred cedar, itself a kind of miracle, and find all the answers we need.