This weekend, the snow came down gently throughout the afternoon and evening, leaving a beautiful blanket of comforting soft white all around us in our weekend hideaway in bucolic Columbia County. One of my best friends calls our area "The Shire," a reference both to its rolling green hills and general coziness. Our vacation home is near the town of Hudson, an Amtrak stop that lies two hours directly north of NYC. Here's a shot of the pines in front of our house when the snow first started falling:
But it was almost exactly a year ago that Mother Nature gave us a very different gift: the worst ice storm that this area of the Hudson Valley had seen in the past quarter century.
The destruction we found in the area when we arrived in our car late Friday night a year ago is still fresh in my mind: trees down everywhere, power lines twisted and undone from their moorings, and no one else on the road except a few emergency vehicles as we drove the last couple of miles to our house.
And everywhere, there was the thick ice -- inches thick quite literally on every outside surface, particularly the trees, many of which snapped like thin twigs from the enormous weight of the ice. Our home was spared direct damage: yes, the power lines were pulled from the house, but no trees fell on it. And like everyone else in the area we wouldn't have power for at least a week. It could have been worse.
A week ago we got around to cleaning up the final remnants of the storm. We hired a tree-maintenance company to go around the property and chop down the trees that clearly wouldn't recover.
But the memory of the ice storm won't go away anytime soon, and I've been shocked at how unsettling and depressing the experience has been for me -- even now. One of the defining characteristics of our property is an expansive western view of the valley to the Catskills across the unseen Hudson River. Underlining that stunning view is the tree line of the woods behind our house. For the first six years that we lived there the rounded bloom of the treetops was the picture of perfection, each branch in its place in perfect order. Here's what it looked like last October, eight weeks or so before the ice storm:
But after the ice storm a multitude of snapped limbs hang limp like useless appendages.
There are times when the sight of those now imperfect trees reminds me of a Tim Burton film; their shapes suggest a surreal, otherworldly landscape inhabited by strange creatures. On other days, however, the associations in my mind take a much darker and more haunting turn. Perhaps because I've been listening lately to John Adams's orchestral work The Wound-Dresser in preparation for a performance of it by two of the artists my company works with (baritone Thomas Hampson, who will sing it with the New York Philharmonic and its music director Alan Gilbert here in the city on January 14-16, before taking it on tour to Europe), the sight of those broken tree limbs remind me of the kinds of maimed soldiers described by Walt Whitman in so many of his poems about the Civil War (The Wound-Dresser is one of Whitman's most famous on the subject).
I suspect that a few summers of growth will eventually make the damage done to the trees seem less pervasive, but for me I'm afraid they will last as a symbol of not only nature's random destructive power, but also, sadly, of something else. One of my neighbors told me that one of the effects of global warming will be that our area will likely experience more frequent ice storms. Whether this comment is scientifically true doesn't really matter, because I realize too well that the kind of simple, lyrical beauty of nature is not something we will ever be able to take for granted again. Nature cannot fully recover from the onslaught of industrialized man. As we poison the air with carbon dioxide, and wantonly clear the forests, we also heat up the oceans (bye-bye choral reefs), and melt away the polar ice caps. Clearly man's destructive powers rival nature's at its worst, but man doesn't have -- or care to have -- something approaching nature's regenerative and restorative instincts.
Sinking deep into depressing thoughts about all of this the other night, I put on the TV in the hopes that David Letterman's show would cheer me up. It was a re-run, which wasn't the real problem. The problem was that Dave's guest was Al Gore, who was promoting his new book Our Choice. Geez. Al tried to give Dave and his audience something positive to hold on to, but despite his good intentions in writing the book -- to encourage people to take definitive action and seek a happy ending for the planet -- my spirits only sank further. I guess there really is no rest for the weary. Perhaps the poor little tree on the front of our property, pictured below, feels the same.