I am struck by how nature can create the backdrop for stories, long-lasting memories, and sometimes meaningful lessons. Much of the time I deal with natural phenomena only when they throw themselves upon me. In 2011, for example, the incessant winter storms and vast accumulations of snow had a major impact on my comings and goings. I have pictures that make my house look as if it is about to be swallowed up by monstrous snow mounds. I made it through those months with some minor house damage and a few memories – mainly of how sick and tired I was of the snow.
Another set of winter memories comes from the blizzard of 1978 when the storm was so overwhelming that driving was prohibited for many days except in dire emergencies. The streets were empty of cars. Some people may have gotten to their jobs on public transportation but mostly the streets were vacant, and people were at home. It was quiet and neighbors serenely connected with each other having nowhere to go. My family and I were among the lucky ones who didn’t lose anyone in this devastation but some people died, and many were rescued from buried vehicles. We hunkered down and kept warm and safe. Pictures show my kids who were nine and thirteen at the time dwarfed by snow piles.
Some of the most powerful recollections about storms come from September of 1938 when the hurricane of the century hit New England. I was only seven weeks old. Of course, I don’t have any of my own memories but the events and the power of that day were recounted again and again by my parents. My mom was at home alone with my 2-year-old brother and me in Providence. My dad had gone to Worcester on business earlier that day or maybe the day before. They must have known a storm was coming but the predictions didn’t suggest that it would hit where it did. Without warning, the hurricane barreled into Rhode Island and pushed the Providence River into downtown – flooding it. High water markers still exist as evidence of what happened in this storm of all storms. Old films and photos from coastal areas show people on beaches or porches watching nature show itself and then, seconds later, those figures were gone. In my family story my father managed to get home and we all ended up safe, but the power of the hurricane remained in my memory through the stories that I was raised with.
About 64 years later, in the spring of 2002, I took a course on the ecology of southern New Hampshire. One day our instructor, Tom Wessels, took us on a field trip. It was a beautiful early spring day. I remember how the dappled light sprinkled across the forest floor, and the increased shadows we walked further into the woods. We were gently instructed to stop, to be quiet and to observe. I remember no sound – although that was probably not the case in this old stand of trees. “Look at the forest floor,” Tom said. “What do you see?” I saw lush green moss and lichen extending as a blanket into the distance. “Look more closely.” I began to see even undulations of slightly-raised narrow rows of mounds interspersed with long hollows made soft by the green growth that covered all surfaces. “What do you think caused that pattern of rising and falling?” No one responded – more silence. “It was the 1938 hurricane,” he said.
I was astonished. My hurricane stories revolved around the devastation and force of water on the shore. But in this forest the story had to do with the wind. Up in New Hampshire, far from the sea, the 1938 winds blew down acres and acres of trees. They fell in the same direction, millions of them, all pointing northwestward, all obliterated by the same force of nature that destroyed life and property on the coast. I was stunned. My memories of the hurricane were challenged in a way that I never could have imagined.
Of the students that were in the forest that day I was the only one with memories – albeit retold memories – of that storm. I wanted to shout out – oh that was the year I was born! But I didn’t, perhaps not wanting to show my age so blatantly or to interfere with the learning of the moment.
I don’t have any pictures from this forest visit but when I conjure up the moment, I first picture the dense, mottled green of the woodland carpet. The image fills me with peace and calm. But next I experience a bolt of revelation in which I am challenged by a whole new way of looking at my assumptions based that were engendered by my adopted memories. I realized, suddenly, that I had been stuck in my own interpretations with no understanding of what happened elsewhere. And, significantly, I had never put in much of an effort to broaden and challenge my understanding of the vastness and force of this natural catastrophe. There were places and people for whom there were consequences and recollections so different from my own.
I could have gone to that forest on my own and walked on the layer of mosses amid the tall, thin trees. But I would never have seen the history laid out before me. It had to be pointed out to me otherwise I would have remained ignorant forever. Now I know to listen and watch very, very carefully. There is likely to be some important lesson that will challenge me in some unknown, but powerful, way.