Going With the Flow

If I had a blog, today I would reflect on the start of a new year in the wake of the Flood of 2015.

The Little Piney from the Bridge at Newburg

The Little Piney from the Bridge at Newburg

Missouri is about rivers. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 named rivers and creeks plus countless back-road streams that come to life when rain is abundant. On Christmas night 2015, it started to rain. It came down in buckets for three days and nights, leaving us with a grand total of 11.26 inches. Even the tiniest stream became a roaring river, closing back roads and interstates, washing away homes and cars,  and changing the lay of the land in ways I never imagined.

Yesterday, we visited our own river: The quarter-mile of the Little Piney Creek that is our southern property line. We wished we could see the Piney when it was up and rolling, but the myriad side-streams kept us away until yesterday afternoon; until the moment we were witness to the raw and merciless power of Nature.

Before & After

Before & After

To put it bluntly, the river and the valley that lies beside it is unrecognizable. The pasture that once fed our cows and sheep is now a beach. The river gouged a new inlet, six or seven feet deep and fifty yards long, into the field, buried or ripped away the fences, and left a giant sycamore, uprooted by the flow, resting on its side where the river bank used to be.

 

The New Channel

The New Channel

The pathway that meandered through the green mansions of sycamore, river birch, and paw-paw trees is scoured clean of underbrush. Great masses of sticks, leaves, and vines are draped around tree trunks, six or seven feet above the ground. Feet of sand cover the ground and everywhere, great trees lie upon the ground, felled by the raging stream.

The Path to the River

The Path to the River

At the river’s edge, the sand bar where we picnicked, swam, and sunbathed on steamy summer days is reformed. Here, the sand is gone; replaced by stones from miles upstream. The path we used to drive down is blocked by downed trees and made almost impassable by a huge hole filled with river water.

 

A New World Order

A New World Order

It is sobering to see an entire landscape changed overnight; taken from the world of the familiar and replaced with something barren, battered and bruised. This morning I stepped into an alien world and I felt afraid. Standing on the banks of the Little Piney I faced the fear that haunts us all: The fear that we are not in control.

Nature, biology, random human violence all force us to admit that however neat and tidy we make our personal lives, nothing is certain; nothing is forever. In the blink of an eye, our world can change forever – and that is what keeps us awake at night.

The Sycamore

The Sycamore

In the face of The Flood, stepping across the threshold into a new year feels less comfortable than it has in the past. I can pretend that my vision of 2016 is accurate: That I can set goals and see them realized; make plans and see them bear fruit and walk confidently ahead on a familiar path, knowing that the foundation of my life is secure, but the Little Piney tells me to be careful because life isn’t safe. In fact, life is terribly unsafe. It is unsafe for children, unsafe for adults. Life is unsafe in any direction. Life is unsafe at any speed.

So how do I move forward? How do I face this brave, new world? The Piney offers me wisdom in her rebirth: The disaster came, but The Piney didn’t resist. She rose and fell, changed her course, and even made footprints in a foreign land. The river flows on without fear of the next flood. Even today she is coming clear again. In a few more days, her voice will be softer and, come spring, little green things will begin to poke through the choking sand and reclaim their rightful place among the budding trees. The Piney says, “Ride out the catastrophe, then start again.”

Things on the river will not be the same. New paths will emerge, old trees will fall, and water will make its home where once there was dry land, but, if we are wise, we too will adapt to the change. Even in this microcosm of life, we will find new bliss. Summer will come and one fine afternoon, we will traverse the fallen trees and muddy pools and sit beside the laughing waters once again. The wood thrush will sing, cardinals will find refuge in the brush piles, and otter will find crawdads under rocks that have come from many miles away. Life is change. Change is life. All we can do is go with the flow.

The Little Piney Renewed

The Little Piney Renewed

Loved By the Sea

If I had a blog, today I would write about my love affair with the sea.

When we get a warm-spell this time of year, my imagination turns from dreams about dogsled racing to adventures on the sea. As with dogsledding, my practical experience on a sailboat is limited, but it doesn’t take much to start a love affair with the wide and beautiful sea.

Me in My Room at Boca Grande

Me in My Room at Boca Grande

When I was a kid, most of our summer vacations were spent at the family beach house on Casey Key, in Florida. The Beach House was on a private beach, so we had miles of sand and surf to entertain us on our two-week sojourns. Back in the 1970’s, beaches were still covered in shells and if we weren’t swimming, we were adding to our seashell collections. On those warm tropical evenings, we would sit in silence and watch dolphins play in the surf or wait for the ghost-crabs to emerge from their sandy tunnels for a night of hunting. Those were days to remember, days I replay often in my dreams and wish I could experience one more time. I couldn’t imagine loving the ocean any more than I did on those rarefied days of childhood, but that was before I stepped aboard a sailboat.

With the exception of canoeing Missouri rivers, boating was foreign to me. The only other boat I’d been on board was the ferry that took us from Washington to British Columbia and the rolling waters left me more woozy than excited. Then came the summer of 1981: The summer we went to Boca Grande. Because other family members had booked the family beach house during the time Dad could get off work, we set out sights on a little cabana near the town of Boca Grande, on Gasparilla Island in southwest Florida. I was thirteen years old and, for that one summer, I felt good about myself. I was thin, and tan, and looked good in my little white shorts and tank tops. The boys at the bait shop flirted with me and I life seemed full of endless possibilities, as if nothing could stand in my way. Those days didn’t last, but “for one, brief shining moment” the world was my own.

Sailing Away

Sailing Away

Mid-way through our trip, Dad booked us a day-trip on a sailboat called The Epicurean. This was part of Dad’s dream: Buying a sailboat and spending summers island-hopping around the Caribbean. Mom had doubts about three months on the open water with two teenagers and a Labrador retriever, but to our delight, she was willing to sample the boating lifestyle for a day. Once Dad mentioned our sailboat dreams to our captain, our day was interspersed with Sailing 101. In some ways, I think it was the boat-jargon that fascinated me most. As we sailed south, past Cayo Costa, I walked around The Epicurean memorizing sailboat “anatomy” and in no time I knew where to find the bow, pulpit, mainsail, boom, keel, and transom. I practiced tying bowline knots and learned about “tacking into the wind.” By the time we reached The Cheeseburger in Paradise Bar at Cabbage Key I felt like a real sailor.

It would be ten years before I’d discover, and fall madly in love with, the music of Jimmy Buffett, but dining on Cabbage Key was an unforgettable experience nonetheless. The open-air restaurant looked like  your typical island cabana until our eyes became accustomed to the low light and we realized the walls and ceiling were covered with dollar bills, each with the name of the donor written across its face. As the bills fell to the ground, they were collected and sent to assorted charities. That seemed magical, in-and-of-itself, but when a bill came to light on Mom’s plate bearing her name, we knew we were on a truly mystical voyage.

Storm Clouds Rising

Storm Clouds Rising

After lunch, we sailed to a deserted island and swam to shore, where we looked for shells and basked in the afternoon sun, then sailed around some of the other islands that dotted this edge of the Gulf. The wind dropped late in the day and although we had a motor for emergencies, we took advantage of the doldrums and dropped anchor. Clouds were building, rising high above us on the tropical air, and the sun shone like a spotlight on our little patch of ocean, and we cooled our sunburned bodies swimming in a pool of emerald green. Our reverie ended with a loud clap of thunder and we hurried to set sail before the storm broke. The wind came up quickly and the sails filled, sending us over the choppy waves at great speed. Thinking back, I suppose I should have been afraid, racing ahead of the black clouds with lightning flashing all around, but on that day, the storm thrilled me. I stood in the bow, soaked with spray, as we shot through the Pass and saw the marina ahead. The sheets of rain had washed the salt from my skin and I felt reborn, sleek and dripping with life.

It has been almost forty years since that day and although our dreams of bare-boating around the tropics never materialized, I still long for the sea. I will go back to the ocean; to walk beaches and bask on sun-warmed sand, but I won’t recapture the glory of that one perfect day. Instead, I will hold it in my heart and remember what it was like, if only for a moment, to be young, and strong, and loved by the sea.

 

Cane Toad’s A Comin’

A Bolt from the Blue

Bolt from the Blue

If I had a blog, today I would write about my lifelong fascination with weather. What does this have to do with a giant amphibian native to Australia? Honestly, outside my quirky family, nothing at all, but we adopted this phrase as an omen of a coming storm after hearing the opening lines of a song called “Cane Toad Blues” on a documentary about these massive and, might I add, poisonous members of the toad family. Right here you see that I was destined to be a science geek. Any child who knows the lyrics to “Cane Toad Blues” and whose mother read National Geographic to her kids at bedtime was going to be a little off the grid. Given that I was raised on documentaries and real-life nature adventures, it was only a matter of time until my love for all things meteorological came to the surface.

Grandy and Gran in the 1950s

Grandy and Gran in the 1950s

My mom’s father was my first weather sensei. Grandy Kent was a man of few words and my only clear memories of him revolve around stormy days. Whenever storms were in the forecast, Grandy and I would watch the western sky and when the first anvil-shaped thunderheads appeared, we sprang into action. Granny and Grandy’s house was in a subdivision, but it overlooked acres of undeveloped land to the west, giving us a clear view of approaching storms. There was an old wooden fence at the edge of their property and Grandy built me a little seat on top of one of the posts so I could see what was happening far afield. I would sit on my perch, leaning back against Grandy’s chest, his arm holding me safely in place, and without saying a word, we would watch the storm roll in. We saw the white wind-clouds ride before the blue-black skies and listened for the first deep rumbles of thunder. I’d count the seconds between the flashes of lightning and the thunderclaps so I’d know how fast the storm was coming. The wind would rise, the smell of ozone heavy in the humid air, and then we’d see it: The curtains of rain as they danced over distant hills. As soon as we could hear the rain on the trees just beyond the field, Grandy would say, “It’s coming across the pea-patch!” and he’d lift me from my seat, take my hand, and we’d try to beat the rain to the back door of the house. More often than not we’d make it, but Granny Ruby was always standing by with big, soft towels in case out timing was a little off. It has been 40 years since those magical spring afternoons, but I can still feel the promise of rain in the wind and hear the patter of droplets rushing across forest and field on those magical days.. Grandy passed away when I was ten, but the love of storms he gave me grew into a passion that I carry with me today. The year before Grandy died, I saw a film in school about amateur weather-forecasting. It featured a boy who built his own weather station and made his own forecasts with a barometer, thermometer, and a cloud chart. I was hooked! I desperately wanted to make my own forecasts and started gathering books from the library telling me what to do. The one thing I didn’t have was a barometer. Amazon.com was thirty years in the future and living in a rural Missouri town didn’t present many options for this kind of purchase. The only barometer I’d ever seen was an antique brass model Grandy kept on his dresser. It was a “look but don’t touch” situation, although we would get readings together when I was at the house. Shortly before his passing, Grandy gave me that barometer. It was the best gift I was ever given and it sits proudly on the sideboard in my living room, advising me whether to expect “Rain, Change, or Fair.”

Inside the Storm

Inside the Storm

As the years rolled by, my whole family supported my love of weather. Mom, Dad, and Granny Ruby kept me well supplied with books on forecasting and Granny faithfully clipped newspaper articles about anything weather-related, which we pasted in my Weather Scrapbook. I wrote to every TV weatherman in our area and received wonderful replies from all. Dave Murry, a meteorologist in St. Louis sent me stacks of satellite imagery from severe weather outbreaks and I got volumes of Civil Defense pamphlets on all manner of severe weather. I knew nothing about sports stars, but knew the names and “stats” of ever tornado researcher in the field: Howie Bluestein, Tim Marshall, Kelvin Droegemeier, Gene Rassmussen, and Tim Samaras were my “team” and I haunted PBS for any documentaries they sent my way. Today, storm forecasting and photography are still my passion. Since my academic strengths were English and art, a degree in meteorology wasn’t in my future. Happily, with the advent of the internet, I can indulge my interests as an amateur and be part of the storm-chasing community without ever leaving home. It goes without saying that no storm enthusiast wants an EF5 tornado to form for their entertainment. Tornadoes are terrifying, destructive, and tragic. For me, as for many, the fascination is the study of something we still don’t understand. It is (for me) armchair exploration of uncharted territory and awe at the forces of Nature. So, when I get an iPhone notification from the National Weather Service that says storms are in the offing, I will go out and drink in the heady air. I will check the radar and the thermodynamic fields from the Storm Prediction Center, but, in the end, I will make my forecast based on the moment I hear the rain coming across the pea patch. Then I will call Mom and she’ll join me as we watch the clouds and make our judgment. If “Cane Toad’s A Comin’,” you can be sure we’ll be standing on the front porch, watching the storm roll in.