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Downed trees

We had the memorial service for Grandma on Saturday July 5th. A few days later on July 9th I was still trying to get settled into living back home with my family. One doesn't settle in a matter of a few days, but I remember on that Wednesday thinking that it might be the first day I had uninterrupted to work on unpacking and organizing myself. It seemed that just as those thoughts flitted through my mind the phone rang. It was my uncle Kevin on the line.

My sister Cadie picked up, but it was a bad connection and she could barely hear Kevin. He was calling on faint cell phone service because his house line was down. After several, "What? Ok...wait, what? I missed that," Cadie handed the phone to me saying, "I can't make much out, but Kevin needs help."

Many trees down

Now my Uncle Kevin is an independent man. He does not like to ask for help, and does not ask for help unless he absolutely must (and may avoid asking for help even when he really should). Since he does not like bothering people, he is usually very good about asking for help in advance if he absolutely requires help so that people can plan in advance. A random call in the middle of a day on a barely working cell connection asking for help was so unusual that my gut immediately suspected something was very wrong.

"Storm hit here yesterday...lot of trees down...need help clearing them. You can't get to the house. You'll have to park wherever you safely can and hike up." That was the most I could piece together from the faint and broken connection on the phone. I wanted more details, more information, but the most I could do was repeat loudly into the phone, "We'll be down! We're coming down! We'll be there!" until Kevin caught it through the faint connection.

Split tree

So it was new plans for the day. Dad and I snagged a few more boys, put both of the chainsaws along with accessories and supplies in the back of the truck, plus cooler chests, ice, drink, and some snack food. Then away we went heading on down to Pennsylvania, decidedly uncertain what we would soon face.

Kevin lives at the end of a short dead-end road quaintly named "Appleman Ridge." He owns a small homestead in a densely wooded and hilly area. His static filled statement on the phone about "trees down" left a lot of room for interpretation. Were a few trees blown down on Appleman Ridge road, knocking out power and phone service and blocking traffic? Or were a mass of trees down everywhere in a general disaster? Kevin is a country man with his own chainsaw and tractor and a few trees down was not the sort of thing to make him feel a need for help. Given Kevin's competence, a cry for help indicated a large scale disaster--but we were puzzled because there was no news about any kind of large scale disaster in the area. (That said, we had a hint at the possibilities by a post on Facebook by a cousin living in a slightly different part of Pennsylvania whose garage had been completely demolished by the wind.)

Mess of trees

Almost as if to spite our assumption, the countryside for the entire trip was untouched. Beautiful hillsides stood green and unruffled under the summer sun. There was no sign of any storm damage until we reached Appleman Ridge. There the destruction began like a line drawn in the sand.

Kevin lives in a very hilly part of Pennsylvania. A narrow ravine borders one side of his property, and his own homestead is on a steep hillside. It is the sort of rough landscape which leads to comments like, "A tornado would never make it through here." I may have said those very words once when walking around Kevin's land. Well, never say never. The destruction we saw was the result of an EF1 tornado. There were no injuries or deaths, but the tornado traveled 1.4 miles at 90 mph with a width of 150 yards. Kevin's house was at the center of this swath, his property almost the sole recipient of the damage.

Rundy sawing a downed tree

The level of destruction defies description. It can't be adequately captured in pictures. The area looked like a war zone. The place looked like it had been hit by an artillery barrage. Nearly every tree on Kevin's land was felled--some uprooted and cast over, others snapped in half, some stripped of their branches. The road to his house was render utterly impassable, buried in massive trees. In the end power was out for 50 hours, and phone/internet service was out for 8 days.

It was a shocking sight to see.

The first thing we had to do was hike (more like scramble) up the hillside to find the house and figure out what was going on. Kevin was overwhelmed and a bit in shock from events, and was not able to give us much direction for where we should start. But he did tell us to leave clearing the road for the utility company and instead start working on clearing his fence line.

Snapped tree down

So we began the most dangerous chainsaw work I have ever participated in. There were pinned trees, tree under pressure, trees that wanted to stand back up on their root ball, trees leaning on other trees, and trees snapped in half with their tops still dangling. On top of all that, we had to use our saws in an obstacle course of debris and broken tree limbs, and sometimes on a very steep slope. In spite of all that by the end of the second day we had the fence line cleared and a good portion of the fence repaired. Still there was many more days of work left (and in fact I and a bunch of brothers went down this past Saturday for probably the last time for cleanup.)

After word got out about Kevin's situation, a lot more help came, including people with skidsteers and other power equipment. The equipment enable the work to progress much more quickly.

Beyond the danger of using chainsaws in very difficult situations, and the danger of being injured or killed by trees, there were additional hazards. Most of this summer has been very cool but a few days in early July were very muggy and hot--and our first day at Kevin's was one of those days. Under the best of circumstances it was a day for sweating, and working out in the disaster zone the sweat was pouring off everyone. We had to be careful to keep hydrated and avoid heat stroke. Then there was the danger of constantly climbing over and under fallen trees. Slipping and falling was an ever-present risk that could end with a twisted ankle, a broken leg, or worse.

Rundy observing

One of the greatest hazards was people pitching in to help which were not accustomed to the work. My Dad was active in his youth, and is still more active than most men his age, but now that he has moved comfortably past sixty his level of physical activity is significantly different than a man twenty or more years his junior. Dad admirably rose to the occasion of the crisis, but much as I was impressed I was also somewhat concerned. When we first arrived on the scene several of us went on ahead to scout a path through the destruction to the house. Dad followed up a short time later carrying both of the chainsaws. Both saws have 18" bars and are heavy enough. Trying to scrambled up a steep bank through brush and downed trees while carrying two saws is of an entirely different magnitude. By the time Dad reached the house he was soaked in sweat and gasping. At that point I was a bit concerned we would end up with someone down with heat stroke our a heart attack before we even got started. Later he was chainsawing along with me, and jumping from one log suspend in the air to another--not something you think about when you are young and limber but when I watched him I couldn't forget that he was a man past sixty with a bad back and several other troublesome joints. In spite of his age he managed to pull off the hard work without any permanent injuries (though he was really hurting afterward). And it was a good last hurrah. I doubt we will see him doing anything of the sort again in this life.

I think the person who most concerned me was my Uncle Nate who came up to help work. He is the youngest of the uncles but also has worked his life at a desk job. When he arrived he said, "When you get tired of using the saw I'll give you a break." Little did he understand that getting tired wasn't what we did. I would keep sawing all day--going, going, and still going except for pauses for drink and food. We started Nate on light work dragging away branches as they were cut, and it quickly became apparent he wasn't in condition to be moved up to heavier labor. Just doing the light work left him sweating heavily and exhausted. Watching him reminded me that not everyone has the same level of health, and made me think about all the stories of office workers who went out to do some hard labor and ended up falling over dead from a heart attack.

Kevin, Ruth, and Micheal

Thankfully nobody was injured or had a heart attack. But the most miraculous thing was what the tornado did not hit. Kevin's property was utterly devastated. But in the midst of it all his house, his barn, and his green house were completely untouched. The contrast was incredibly stark. Trees were flattened everywhere around the house, a huge tree directly across the driveway was torn up and tipped over, and yet nothing was touched on the house or barn. In the face of such devastation, the preservation of house and life was evident as the hand of God. By all normal rights the house and barn should have been leveled. Instead, the glass table on the back deck wasn't moved, wasn't even scratched. All of which was a sober reminder that the hand of God directs and constrains so that no storm does anything he has not decreed. Those who trust in that truth can sleep at night, even when the storms of life are raging.

Aunt Daryl by tree
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Close-up photo of stream on rock, by the author

In the midst of struggle is the longing for the battle's end. When everything is wearying and weighing down the heart hungers for freedom. When the dirt and ugliness of life is ground into the very pores of the soul, there is the cry for cleansing.

There are many deeper valleys than those I have walked, but I know something of those feelings.

The years and experiences build up like layers of grime mark a long day of toil. There is a weariness in the bones that escapes words but lives as the reminder of loads carried. And there is the thought, "If only there were some hidden stream, a fountain I might find to wash all this grime and weariness away. Then I would be renewed."

Is there such fountain, a stream crystal clear in which blackness becomes white and exhaustion runs to strength?

The answer is hard for me, because the answer depends on the heart of the question. As a Christian I believe there is a washing that removes the filth of life's ugliness and failure. When weighed down by such burdens it is rejuvenating for the heart to return to the cleansing that has already made clean, to be reminded and renewed in that reality. But I also see how easy it is to confuse the feelings of life and in that confusion think we might receive a refreshing in this life which is in truth not promised until later.

Part of the feeling of weight and grime and weariness deep down is the creeping fingers of age. Jesus has not given his followers an abdication from that. The weariness of seen and experienced dissolution and unraveling is the weight of the living and dying in this world. The followers of Jesus have been given that to carry for their master, not seek to escape. The fountain of renewal which lifts the weight of age and transforms Adam's skin anew won't come until our dust is washed away with finality. To think that great refreshing might come while still clinging to these grimy atoms is a thought that will only end in frustration. The leaping Day of renewed vigor will come--but not now, not here.

When I feel exhausted deep in the soul it is hard to know if what I need is to stop the struggle and lay down in the water of cleansing again--offered now for heart and soul and coming from no struggle or striving of our own. Or is it that I am foolishly looking to escape from carrying the cross of this journey? Is the answer to this feeling that I just need to shoulder the burden with a better perspective instead of shirking the load? It wasn't said this road was a walk in paradise. No, paradise comes later. The weight that comes with age and experience won't lift, the weariness won't leave, until the last breath. We are supposed to carry this, and the tiredness is a reminder that we do look forward to a rest.

With that thought resignation comes easy, but that isn't the answer. It is foolish to look for a washing away of time's weight now before time is done--but we are to pine, to long, not for what is or can be now--but for what is promised and will yet be. It is a matter of perspective; don't look for that stream of eternal youth at this place in the road, look to the end of the road. There the water will be sweet, the cleansing a washing away of every weight and line, and the rest on those banks a pure delight.

If the eye looks no longer for a stream by the wayside, but sees it clearly where it resides at the road's end, then the load can be carried in anticipation and hope.

I say that, but I must confess some days the weight of dust upon dust and the longing for the shower of refreshing makes it hard to see clearly. Sometimes it feels there is just the wishing to be free and clean of all that is down here beneath Death's lash and in those moments and feelings the mountain's fountain stream seems a distant dream.

***

There is a fountain filled with blood
drawn from Emmanuel's veins;
and sinners plunged beneath that flood
lose all their guilty stains.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

E'er since, by faith, I saw the stream
thy flowing wounds supply,
redeeming love has been my theme,
and shall be till I die.

- William Cowper, There is a Fountain -

Photo of stream among trees, by the author
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The poem The Precept of Silence, by Lonel Johnson. Photo by blog author.

The Precept of Silence

Lonel Johnson

The winds are sometimes sad to me,
The starry spaces, full of fear;
Mine is the sorrow on the sea,
And mine the sigh of places drear.

Some players upon plaintive strings
Publish their wistfulness abroad;
I have not spoken of these things,
Save to one man, and unto God.

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Photo of surf coming in, by the author

The sea comes in and the breakers roar and thunder. The waves eddy and swirl, carving and scouring and seeking to suck all away. For the person caught the fear is there, and the sense of powerlessness palpable. The fury of the deep is there and it batters. The fingers of the helpless cling where they can and then cling no longer as the grasp slips out, "O God! O God!"

The ocean deep reminds us of how helpless we are in its grasp. The trials of life do the same. All plans, all power, all foresight and intelligence is undone in the grip of either and we see ourselves for what we are.

Life in this world is like a beach, the thin strip which runs the edge between chaos and the far fair country. And the beach of this life must face the changing tides and pounding surf. When all is ravaged by rising tide and wrecked in the pummel of surf, the tide goes out again and leaves trash and treasures in its wake.

Then peace and quite reigns for a time. Weak and exhausted the survivor walks the beach of living, trembling, feeling the mixture of relief and humility--if he has learned well. Those with grace to learn shift through the ruins of life left by the tide of time, seeing the garbage for what it is, hoping to spot the treasure in the midst.

We rule nothing, we hold nothing in the power of our hands. The tide reminds us of that, and when it washes out to leave us bedraggled on shore like ship-wrecked survivors we like to think we have learned humility at last and need to learn it no more. But the surf will return to teach lessons again, anew, and still fresh more.

It is needful. Our lives are like that, until we leave the beach.

***

The surf is out today, and I'm picking through the beach of my life looking to discard the worthless and find the good left behind. I must use what time I have, because the tide is coming back. Yes, I hear it roar.

***

All your waves and breakers have swept over me.

By day the Lord directs his love,
at night his song is with me—
a prayer to the God of my life.

- Psalm 42 -

Photo of sun rising over surf, by the author
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