Friday, January 6, 2012

Lessons From Trees and Hurricane Irene

Take a quick drive around Tarboro.  It won’t take long.  It’s a small town. While most of the debris from Hurricane Irene has been neatly cleaned up, and stumps of fallen trees ground down, you can still see the effects.  Houses are still tarped and families still displaced.  More than 12 weeks later and we are still smack dab in the middle of the recovery process. 
It’s been a stressful 12 weeks for my family.  Our 102-year-old home was splintered by a 25 ton oak tree.  25 tons of oak tree slamming into a wooden structure causes extensive damage, not just to the dwelling, but to the lives of its inhabitants as well.  Our world has been turned upside down.  We’ve had to pack all of our belongings, find a place to relocate, and navigate through the chaos of insurance adjusters and contractors.  The normal and comforting routine of our daily lives has been thrown completely off kilter. 
But in spite of everything, I’m going to miss that tree.  That stately old hardwood shaded my yard from summer heat and sprinkled it with color in the fall.  Like the other old trees that line the streets of Tarboro, it added charm and character.  
And it was surprisingly healthy to have been blown over in a storm.  It struck me as odd that THIS tree would have blown over so easily in a storm, smashing my house and taking another, smaller maple tree with it.  And dozens of people (and believe me crowds of people stopped to gape and take pictures) have shared in my surprise. 
Until I tell them about the tree’s neighbor. 
A month or so before Hurricane Irene came barreling acrossNorth Carolina, a neighboring oak was removed fromSaint Patrick Street.  The tree was hollow and rotten and generally unhealthy.  I’m not questioning the need to remove that tree.  It needed to be carefully and systematically removed for the safety of the neighborhood.  However, that dying tree stood less than 10 feet from the oak Irene blew onto my home. 
Trees growing in close proximity often share root systems. If two roots of the same species grow next to each other, as they grow in diameter, they begin to grow or graft together.  What weakens one tree weakens its neighbor.  When the first tree was removed and the stump ground away, it left the remaining healthier tree weakened and vulnerable.  And Irene took full advantage of that vulnerability. 
After the storm, the children were sent off to stay somewhere safer than a tree-smashed house.  My husband and the dog remained, camping out downstairs away from the looming possibility of structure collapse, but close enough to guard our exposed belongings.  We’d heard the news reports of looting after Hurricane Katrina and wanted to safeguard what was left of our dwelling if at all possible.  How tempting, we thought, it might be to see a ruined, empty house.  How tempting to just step inside and take away whatever you want. 
And the neighborhood did converge on our home.  But not to walk away with our televisions and computers.  Instead they came with hot meals, and kind words, and legal advice, and offers of warm and dry places to sleep.  I have never been so proud to call Tarboro my home. 
Even now, so many weeks later, I can’t go through a day without someone asking about how the house is coming, or how I’m doing, or just telling me that they are thinking about my family.  
Having grown up in a major metropolitan area, living in small town Tarboro has been a bit of a shock from time to time.  It’s easy to remain anonymous in a larger city, to maintain a sense of privacy, to not know or care about your neighbors.  I haven’t always liked the way everyone seems to know me and everything going on in my personal life.  
But in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene I learned a big lesson, a lesson that Tarboro already seemed to know.  What happens to our neighbors deeply affects us.  Maybe it isn’t nosiness.  Perhaps it isn’t just fishing for gossip that keeps my neighbors asking questions.  It could be they’re just keeping a check on my root system.  And if they find them getting a little weak, they’re more likely to strengthen me with a warm pot of soup and encouraging words than to push me over in the storm.

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