The Forest Holds Its Breath

We knew it was coming. Snow had been in the forecast for a week prior to the storm’s arrival. By the time two converging fronts combined forces we had another nor’easter settling in.

As nor’easters go, it’s anybody’s guess as to how much precipitation is going to land where. Our local forecast set the expectation for 8 to 12 inches of snow, but the worrisome part was the prediction for intervals of rain and sleet over the course of the three-day storm.

It started as mist from low altitude clouds that settled to ground level. By mid-morning on the 9th it had changed to snow, but the flakes were small. Although it snowed for the remainder of the daylight hours, only 2 inches accumulated. By nightfall, however, the snowflakes grew large and rapidly began stacking up against the markings on our snow stake.

We slept that night in the deepening silence that comes with a thick blanket of snow. That silence ended during the early morning hours. We awoke to the sound of rain mixed with sleet rattling against the windows. It was going to get messy, but the forecast for the next two days gave no indication of just how messy.

It wasn’t long before we started to hear the distinctive snap of fracturing limbs, toppling tree-tops, and, occasionally, entire trees falling to the ground. With each loud crack we’d pause and listen, trying to determine if the falling tree was nearby.

Late in the afternoon of the storm’s second day we decided to take a walk to the mailbox. We tossed aside limbs along the half-mile stretch between our house and the nearest town-maintained road.

As the first light arrived on the third day of the storm I still didn’t recognize the event as anything outside the realm of what I’d seen before. I climbed on the tractor early and started to plow our half-mile of road, assuming that the worst was behind us.

Clearing our road typically takes between two and three hours. With the tractor in low-gear reverse I back down the road at literally a crawling pace. Heavy wet snow streamed from the discharge chute on the six-foot-wide rear mounted snow blower. Many tree limbs along the way were drooping low, forcing me to duck as they raked over machine and me. Occasionally I’d stop to toss a limb aside or shake a low hanging branch free so I could pass underneath. I was finished in just under 3 hours and we planned a trip to the library after lunch.

Knowing that power outages would accompany the storm, we called ahead to be sure that the library still had electricity. With assurance that the lights were on, we climbed in the truck and headed for town. We didn’t get far. Less than a mile from our house the way was blocked by two or three very large white pines that had snapped at the base and fallen across the road. As we turned around, I suggested that we try an alternate route, but Marion wisely insisted that we’d be best to make our way back home while we still could.

The mix of snow, sleet and rain continued. The weight on the trees grew heavier. The familiar forest and meadows that surround us began to take on an otherworldly appearance. It was about to get really messy.

Late in the afternoon I decided to walk down to where the tree had fallen across Kibling Hill Road. In the fading light, the once familiar landscapes surrounding me appeared even more foreboding. Limbs came down regularly and I kept a wary eye skyward, ready to dodge falling wood at the sound of every crack.

Halfway to the junction of Kibling Hill Road my way was blocked by a downed maple. I stepped through the branches and continued. A few hundred yards further a cluster of three white pines had been uprooted at the base and lay across the road. I stepped through the limbs of what would become my work for the following morning, driven by the curiosity of what else may lie ahead.

The silence was unnerving. It felt as if the forest was holding its breath while it struggled to support the weight of snow and ice. The air was still. Not a creature stirred. Along the way I noted that power was out at my neighbor’s homes. The large pine had been cleared from Kibling Hill Road. (Marion had called the road foreman earlier and he told her that he was scrambling all across town to remove downed trees. Her conversation revealed that he had been to that same spot earlier in the day to remove another large tree that had fallen.) The only vehicle that passed was a neighbor returning from the hardware store with a generator to get him through what might be a week without power. We chatted for a while as I kept my eyes and ears focused on the trees above. It was nearly dark when he drove off and I made my way home.

Nearing our tiny house in the meadow, the lights from Gypsy glowed beneath the heavily laden maples above. I would later discover that 90,000 Vermont homes and businesses had lost power, but our off-grid homestead affords the rewards of uninterrupted energy – one of the many returns of a more self-reliant lifestyle.

Along with that self-reliance comes the fact that no one is going to remove those downed trees on the road but us, so the next morning we fueled up the chainsaw and started clearing trees.

I’m writing this post on the Sunday following the storm. The silence has continued for days now. Except for the occasional breeze that rattles the ice clinging to the branches, the forest waits in silence, still holding its breath, afraid of moving before sunshine and warmer temperatures help relieve the burden. We wait, too, always listening. We’re still in the midst of the contest, hanging our hopes on the strength of the trees.