October 29th, 2012 began around here with eerily mild air, almost no wind and what sailors would call “a steeply dropping glass,” meaning barometric pressures were beginning to reflect the monster that lay just offshore of Cape May, NJ. But by nightfall things had changed–the densely wooded land around our cabin rushed and moaned with the first impact of a category 1 hurricane the NOAA people had been calling “Sandy.”
By midnight, the NE Pennsylvania power companies had given up all hope and more than 400,000 homes in Monroe and neighboring counties were without electricity. New Jersey was dead; Philadelphia’s northern suburbs were dead. The storm had cut a path directly in from the coast, bisecting the Delaware Valley and landing hard on top of us. Like a fool I stood on our porch during the full fury of the blow, pleading with the trees to hang in there; after all, it couldn’t be that bad, what with a hundred miles of land sapping the oceanic brunt of the thing. “Ladies,” I said, shouting to the big oaks and ash and beech trees, “calm down, now. Just give with it, bend with the wind like you always do so well.” This was all I asked.
I went to bed. Somewhere in the night, the canon started firing. Booming, cracking blasts woke me, and at first I thought it was a thunderstorm imbedded in a trailing frontal system, as often happens with tightly wound cyclones. But soon enough I realized what it was. By first light the full force of the devastation was clear. Those massive trees I had spoken with only hours earlier had succumbed. By first count that day (Halloween) 215 big hardwoods had uprooted themselves, falling into one another like jackstraws, pulling up layers of shale and sandstone and sodden earth, their roots sticking up and their trunks lying down: it was wholesale slaughter, milennia of slow, deliberate growth brought low by the 125-mph winds.
We are logging them off now, dragging one fallen maiden after another to the haul-out deck and shipping them down to the mill, leaving acres of open slash and bald stumps to regrow, to heal, to make room for another forest. Was it a miracle that none fell on our house? And is it a deeper miracle, somehow–this clearing away of the old to make way for the new? Give it a century or two.