Thursday, February 19, 2009

Great Plains chiaroscuro

For a moment I could see him there, a man such as myself, working leisurely in the garden raking sticks into untidy piles to cart off to a larger and even untidier pile on the far side of his property, a place set aside for the residuum of nature’s vanquishing energy and now home to birds, voles, snakes and other small creatures, a man such as myself who watches the sky for signs and portends, who loses himself in the vast depths of a cirrus ocean whose delicate smoky wisps and strands of lace perpetually drift on currents of azure and indigo, a man who frowns deeply when a sudden crump of thunder intrudes like the hand of doom, and the sky darkens laced with serpents’ tongues of fire, sending the man frantically dashing to the basement where he furiously reworks the battlements of his terror, reinforcing the walls with thick studs and beams, sealing the windows and shoring up the ceiling, and stockpiling his crude cave with emergency supplies while keening and weeping like one gone batty even as the weather radio jangles its dire alerts and warnings in tune with a robotic voice warbling that the National Weather Service in Topeka has issued a —— warning, and it doesn’t matter what kind of warning, only that it hangs there like a capitulation to utter hopelessness, and the man, a man such as myself, goes stark raving mad as so many others on the Great Plains have done when Mother Nature goes on a bender.

For a moment only the image came, and then it slipped away. But not so far. Like an echo I could feel the rubber grip of a hammer in my hand, could smell the acrid bite of sawdust, could hear the telltale radio.

Eight people died the day the tornadoes came to Oklahoma last week; another died several days later. The largest tornado remained on the ground for over an hour, witnesses reported, a fact that chills me to the bone. Divorced from any relationship to the deceased, they become mere numbers on the blotter, devastation’s ghoulish math, but a part of my mind followed through the equation to percentages of population lost and the final summation of ruination and irreplaceable loss, one more nail in the coffin of the rural Midwest.

As I write this on the eve of our ninth year in Kansas, the early morning sun is shining brightly, melting away the thick layer of frost to pool beneath the car where bluebirds and juncos gather to drink their fill. Not a shadow on the horizon or the radar, and yet a sense of foreboding has fallen over me, one I cannot shake. My thoughts on the approaching spring veer from anticipation to apprehension, partly due to last week’s warnings and, of course, after what took place within the bounds of our southern neighbor. Lest anyone sneer at my concern, let me remind all and sundry that more than once last year we were chased by tornadoes, that on numerous instances we saw the destruction left in their wake, and that from a distant location I watched television announcers point to an odd-shaped glob indicating a hook echo, rotation, the potential of a tornado on the ground at our doorstep in Blue Rapids, and Lori home alone. I have stared up into clouds spinning in a milky vortex, rustling nearby trees and spinning and lifting leaves littering the ground, and felt the whirlwind’s caress like a whisper. I am no stranger to storms.

I’m also cognizant of predictions by climatologists that global warming will bring stronger tornadic activity to the middle part of the nation. If last year was a taste of what we can expect, then I suspect we’re in trouble. And I suspect that we ought to prepare for any eventuality, a thought that struck me with particular force this past week.

Like most people, the majority of our possessions could be easily replaced. It’s why we have insurance, after all. But what of the other items, the heirlooms, the treasures, the invaluable pieces of our histories? Are they stored in a safe place or would the first twirling dervish banish them to Oz? 

I ran through a mental checklist of those things I would most want to preserve should our house be razed to the foundation, and then calculated as best as possible where those items were stored. The exercise surprised me. Most of the things I deemed most priceless were scattered on the upper floors of the house. Not that any were of real monetary value—35 years of diaries, some photos, a wedding ring that needed to be resized, a few books and CDs. Things with which to rebuild a shattered life.

Unlike the man I imagined hammering together a storm shelter, my own preparations were more systematic and measured. Downstairs I cleared a wide space where we could hide and retrieved each item I’d identified as indispensable, storing the diaries in plastic tubs wrapped in heavy plastic bags and the rest in other watertight containers. While I was at it, I filled a five-gallon water jug and stored it beside the lantern. I also ordered a second weather radio to supplement the one we keep on the second floor (forewarned is forearmed) and began searching for an affordable external hard drive for a snatch-and-grab mad dash should the occasion arise. Should it not, the extra storage would be welcome for redundant backups of photographs and writings.

I like to think that planning for disasters isn’t reactionary, it’s precautionary. And yet in most ways it is reactionary, protocols generated in response to external stimulus. If for every action there is a reaction, this, then, is mine: relish spring’s chiaroscuro of beauty and terror, watch the skies, listen for alerts and know what to grab, and when. A plan in place is all we can have.


Anonymous said...

Tom-- Be warned that Kansans need to consider both wind and high water. Having had my home blow away in the Topeka tornado of 1966, I try to keep my photo albums "grab-able" at a moment's notice, in a cabinet near the stairs to our basement. Subsequently, I wondered if I should just store them in a cabinet in the basement.
Then one recent spring our neighborhood flooded. We were lucky that time, as townhome neighbors -- as near as next door, under the same roof -- had their basements fill with water.
My recommendation is to store photos at floor level of the main floor of your home OR on a shelf at ceiling level in your basement. Then, get those photos out and enjoy them regularly...because, if you live in Kansas, you may be without them some day, no matter how careful you try to be.

Tom Parker said...

Carol -- Exactly right. Our basement has no drain so if it floods it'll fill to the rafters, unless some of it drains through the limestone foundation. I've stored my photos on the top shelf near the ceiling, so they should be okay barring a real disaster. If it floods that high, we'll just call it an indoor swimming pool and leave it at that.
It's impossible to plan for any eventuality, so all we can do is try to foresee and overcome limitations.

Ian said...

Your writing really evokes the landscape and atmosphere of Kansas.
I particularly like the passage that begins, 'A man such as myself...'