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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Riding the Pineapple Express

 This post first appeared in December 2007.

There was a storm -- I know that the media went nuts over it, but we were not that impressed with it ourselves here at Stony Run, leastways not till we'd looked about a bit.

Big storms of this kind do happen here.

The one everyone still talks about -- the Columbus Day Storm -- ripped through in the 1960s. I missed it -- I was growing up in Georgia at the time. But some of the big redwoods, red cedars, and spruces on campus are topped out, as though someone had taken a shotgun shell the size of an oil drum to them. They had snapped off like so many matchsticks. Some rows of Douglas fir trees are a bit odd looking, as about half of them are a hundred and fifty years old, and the other half a little over forty, planted to replace big ones that had been plucked from the rows and jackstrawed across the campus. When I began working here, twenty years ago, the differences were striking. Now the younger trees are beginning to blend in.

That storm knocked over millions of trees in the Northwest; there are still places one can go to find them, all lying side by side, all pointing in the same direction, mouldering beneath the canopy of a new forest growing up around them, with the bowls scooped out of the earth where their giant root wads had heaved out into the wet and wuthering air -- afterwards places of shelter for deer and other creatures, and now filling in with new soil and lush growth of blue huckleberry and sword fern.

I was working on a Christmas-tree-harvesting contract in about 1982 when a similar, though smaller, storm had blown in from, seemingly, nowhere, at midnight. I had parked my little trailer under an old oak, right out in the middle of 160 acres of seven-year-old Douglas firs, and gone to bed. I was awakened by moaning winds and rattling branches. The trailer began playing hopscotch. Its tongue jounced off the cinderblock I'd rested it on, and everything seemed to be going down by the bow. I felt a little as though I were on board the Titanic.

Beloved had baked chocolate-chip cookies for me -- enough to last out the week.

I opened the kitchen cabinet, by feel, in the roaring darkness, and took the big bag to bed with me.

If I'm going to die, I thought, it would be a shame to waste all these cookies.

So I ate them.

Every one of them.

Beloved, on the other hand, had missed the whole thing. Our house, built snug against an eastern slope away from the wind, hardly jiggled. She, and the baby, and the chickens, ducks and geese slept through the night, and in the morning she got a call from a neighbor.

"Is your power out? I hear the whole county's electricity went out."

"Umm ... well ... "

"Ohhhh, that's right. You guys don't even use it!"

Which was true -- we were off grid. It was nearly a week before some people got their power turned on again, while our 12-volt lights and propane refrigerator chugged right along.

We have had other such storms, mostly of the kind known as the Pineapple Express. A low forms in the vicinity of Hawaii, picks up an unbelievable amount of water, and brings it and dumps it in our laps. The temperature here can soar, in midwinter, into the sixties, while the barometer drops through the floor. It's not, maybe, a typhoon, but pretty darn near it sometimes. The most rain I have seen from one of these (1996) is eight inches in three hours. That was enough to widen our three-foot-wide creek to more than ninety feet across and put a bow wave on the corner of our house foundation.

This week's storm was noisy, but not as noisy as that one. It was wet, but not that wet -- here. The creek didn't even jump its banks.

Elsewhere, north of us, was another matter.

Seas reached forty feet in height. One gust was clocked at nearly one hundred thirty miles per hour. Rain was measured in several places at more than fifteen inches in a twenty-four hour period. Trees fell across cars, roofs, power lines, and people, killing some. A woman was swept away from her pickup truck and hasn't been seen since. Railroads were flooded, bringing seasonal shipping to a standstill, and brown water, ten feet deep, buried Interstate Five, practically cutting Seattle off from Portland.

At our house, though, all was relatively normal until about six in the morning. We brewed coffee and drank it sitting by the fire, talking about storms and global warming. I went to get dressed and put on my workaday face.

And the lights flickered and went out.

It was still quite dark out, so we felt around for matches and candles. I took a taper, on a chair-back candleholder, to the bathroom and hung it on the towel rack by the vanity mirror.


No way I could "put on my face" in such dim light. I would have to wait until I got to work (assuming I could get there) -- campus has backup options for power that seldom fail. This minuscule incident rather forcibly reminded me of how little stands between the pampered people of the "developed west" and the dark nights and hand-tooled, leg-and-arm-and-animal powered lives most humans have lived and continue to live, across the world. We do not well when we take this civilization thingy for granted. It's a privilege at best, which any Hawaiian low can take away pretty much as it pleases.

Beloved, of course, takes such occasions very much in stride --it seems to make her, if anything, extraordinarily cheerful -- and lit a lantern to go see about letting out the chickens.

Right after daylight, about an hour after we'd been plunged into darkness, there was a click in the circuit breaker panel and everything began shining and humming again. The heroic people of the Emerald People's Utility District, doing what they do best, were out there somewhere. I hope people remember to thank them. We blew out all the candles and I grabbed my purse and coat and headed for the door.

Other than the fact that a strip of our roof, twenty feet long and three feet wide, had blown a hundred feet through the air, smashed through the deer fence and lay draped across the winter garden, it looked like we had come through pretty well.

Lucky us.


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