From the Editor

A Beautiful Holy Mess

Nature’s wrath is also Nature’s gift

By Jim Dodson 

Folks who know me will tell you that I’m a big fan of winter. Perhaps this is because I was born in the depths of winter – early February – or possibly I am shaped by two decades of residing on a densely forested hill in coastal Maine where I grew to love the solitude and beauty of a cold and quiet winter’s day. As nutty as this may sound, I even loved the look of my gardens in winter, stripped clean of foliage, beds neatly tucked in for a good winter’s sleep. 

Whatever it is that makes me such a loyal fan of the darkest and coldest season of the year, summers and early autumns like the ones just past that brought record waves of heat, periods of drought topped off by a pair of killer hurricanes, make me grateful to reach a period of cool rest and recovery, time to heal, rebuild and plan anew.

As I write, I’m listening to the sound of a work crew clearing the last of the major damage from a century-old white oak that Hurricane Michael toppled onto our neighbor’s lovely house across the street. The tree took out a second-floor dormer and demolished his chimney. A few doors down on our side of the street, other neighbors were in their family room at the height of the storm’s passage when a giant oak in their backyard slammed through the roof of their family room. Up at the opposite end of the block, three more century-old hardwoods toppled over the street, crushing one car and just missing three houses. The street was blocked for four days.

As the winds churned and rain fell, I heard something clatter across our roof and stepped out in the gale to see what was happening. It turned out to be a heavy chimney cap that the gods of the winds hurled off its perch. As I picked it up in the yard, the winds stiffened and I heard a loud roar — the kind of noise people who survive hurricanes later recall hearing just before disaster hit.

On my way back through the house, just to be on the safe side, I called out to my wife to round up the dogs and step down to the basement. With that, out through the new study and screened porch I went and along the stony path by my Japanese shade garden to the steps leading to the second floor of our garage, which I’ve transformed an apartment into my home office. I’d forgotten to shut the door to my office.

Halfway up the steps, though, a fierce blast of the wind stopped me mid-step and a loud crack caused me to look up. The large wooden power-company pole that stood between my back fence and my neighbor’s yard, holding several lines and a pair of transformers, snapped like a twig. As I watched, the pole came flying down through the horse-chestnut trees that frame our rear yard, crashing into the ground, taking out several tree limbs, power lines and communication cables with it — plunging our block into darkness for the next five days.

In the storm’s wake, neighbors soon emerged to survey the damage. The belief was that the hurricane had spawned a tornado or microburst that ripped through the neighborhood. Given the number of massive trees it knocked over, remarkably no one was seriously injured. The cleanup started long before the city crews arrived to begin clearing the street of trees. Chainsaws were offered, coffee distributed, neighbors helped neighbors. People who hadn’t spoken to each other in years stood and chatted as if at a block party. Throughout the ordeal, those fortunate enough to have whole-house generators offered food and shelter, warm showers and flushing toilets to those who didn’t have them. The damage was nothing like the unimaginable images coming out of Mexico Beach and Florida’s Panhandle — to say nothing of the many deaths and souls still unaccounted for. But the sense of relief was palpable, a shared gut feeling that those of us who choose to live in this stately old neighborhood — like dozens of similar ones across the historic Triad — are fully aware that we reside in a mature urban forest of hardwoods that have a lifespan all their own. Trees and humans age in remarkably similar ways, subject to weather, disease and the vicissitudes of time. I’ll never forget our former neighbor who drove up from Southern Pines to see the mid-century house we were restoring in my boyhood neighborhood, took one look at the towering oaks that surround and define us, and grumbled, “If it was me, first thing I’d do is cut down every one of those big trees. Someday they’re gonna fall on your house and make a holy mess.”

Maybe so. But a holy mess is evidently a risk we’re collectively willing to take in order to live in a neighborhood where the ancient trees rise overhead with the elegance and grace of a medieval cathedral. Medieval designers, in fact, were in part inspired to create their soaring designs based on native European forests that arched toward the heavens. Chapels in the trees as one famous medieval mystic called them.

I’m not sure about my human neighbors but I think of the mammoth living creatures that tower over us — home to nesting birds, sanctuaries for squirrels, producers of noisy rains of acorns this time of year, aging bearers of summer swings, Moravian stars and soulful chimes that catch the wind — as friendly giants of the Earth who remind us of our own brief passage through this world. They look out for us in their way. We look out for them in ours. 

Down below, meanwhile, the power has been mostly restored and the big cleanup is winding down just as winter — as I said, my favorite season and best planning time — comes calling. My neighbor across the way has already rebuilt his chimney and the dormer will be fully repaired soon. As is Nature’s way, the old gives way to the new in this beautiful mess called life.

If my Japanese garden never quite got off the ground the way I hoped over this turbulent summer and autumn, fresh ideas are beginning to stir like green shoots in an early spring garden, and our fireplace woodpile has grown four times in size, ready to warm this old house for many winters to come.

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