With our climate changing before our eyes, we collectively need to adapt — or suffer the consequences.
From inside, it seemed the ice-coated trees glimmered and shined in silence. Only upon going outside was the assumed muted stillness and quietude of a cold winter morning betrayed.
The snaps and cracks from strained branches were a cacophony of cries, each minute another endurance test that so, so many limbs and indeed whole trees failed. Weeks later, sullen, empty, carved branches line streets, waiting for final disposal. More than 34,000 tons of tree debris have been removed. And that’s literally half of it.
On a second walk later that afternoon, the neighborhood was louder. More branches were audibly struggling, even more had fallen, some smashing cars and fences, others lying on top of roofs. Yards were littered with whole sections of tree. I tried moving a small branch from the middle of the road and was surprised at how heavy it was. No wonder so many branches were snapping.
Before returning inside I turned on my car, wanting the battery to get some run. Half of the radio stations were out. Checking my phone delivered the news that a friend had lost power, and that more and more outages were happening across the city.
I charged my devices and gave thanks for what I still had. Each time the heater turned on I held my breath. In bed, my sleep was restless, waiting and fearing for my turn to come. At 3:30 a.m. my computer and oven buzzed and beeped on and off, before finally giving in and going quiet and dark. The heat under the blankets was a blanket itself, but one that would eventually dissipate, its return unpredictable.
. . .
The magnolia, cedar, oak and other trees of Austin — totaling 34 million — cover 31% of the city. By comparison, Houston’s tree canopy covers 18% of the city, while the average coverage in Dallas is 29%. (New York City is at 22%, and Los Angeles averages around 21%.)
More than 10 million trees were impacted by the storm, a third of the city’s canopy. Is it a statistical coincidence that roughly the same percentage of the city’s residents lost power — or further evidence and proof of how inextricably linked we are to nature?
The mix of continued drought, such has been experienced the last year or two in Central Texas, along with extreme rain (or ice), such as we saw in early February, will stress the city’s trees like never before.
These are the trees that line city streets and provide shaded cover over houses and yards alike during the ever-long summers of Texas. What makes the backyard barbecues and intimate outdoor concerts possible are the mammoth trees with branches that sometimes grow and extend in angles one would not think possible.
The city has been trying to better properly manage its trees; the city power company even offers a tree trimming service upon request. But wouldn’t you know it? The literal outcry of not in my backyard threw a wrench in those plans: between “40% and 50% of Austin homeowners delay the utility’s trimming work with questions or disputes about trimming plans.”
Perhaps had it rained more last summer and the trees were less dry, the branches could have survived the second once-in-a-25-year winter storm in two years.
And perhaps had the city, both its citizens and leaders, managed to prune the trees away from power lines better, 30% of city residents wouldn’t have lost power, some for a few hours, some, like me, for a few days, others up to a week.
In the wake of the storm, there was an outcry against the “woke” Austin city council, the one perceived to be too liberal because it didn’t cut down or chainsaw trees.
The fate of trees, and the power lines running through them, is yet another litmus test in our ceaseless, divisive culture clash.
What critics — and perhaps all of us — haven’t internalized is that the changing climate, just like a virus, has no political agenda.
What we all have in common is nature. There is no escape. Like it or not, we’re all this together. Except we aren’t.
While those with means, such as myself, are able to endure power outages in relative comfort — I stayed in a hotel for two nights — others are left to see their breath in their homes as the food in their refrigerators and freezers slowly spoils.
On the way back to my apartment from the hotel, I saw the police prodding and harassing homeless men in tents camped out along the road. With more than a hundred thousand Austinites without power, and cold, the police set out to move those experiencing homelessness from one spot to another. As I counted my lucky stars again for my financial resources, I cursed at all things representing power. Police, the energy company, the climate, the trees that caused so much havoc because of the cumulative effects of decades of our modern existence.
But I had to divert my attention to my driving. The stop light was out at a major intersection and unspoken cooperation among my fellow citizens was as spotty as my oven’s pilot light.
. . .
One of my favorite places on Earth is Muir Woods, just north of San Francisco. Walking among the redwoods there is a lesson of humility. Standing next to and touching one, you can feel almost by osmosis your insignificance in both space and time. How tiny you are. How your entire life is like a long weekend to trees who sprouted before the onset of modernity.
But in addition to the majestic sight of the trees is the air around them. In places like Muir Woods, the forest air gives off a scent that can fairly be defined as the essence and muskiness of bark and tree. The sequoias give off a freshness that, mixed with Pacific Ocean mist, is so clean and hearty you can almost taste it as you breathe it in.
On Friday nights (or at least the ones when the power is working) I join my family via Zoom for Sabbath dinner. It’s my job to say the blessing over the wine, translated to the fruit of the tree.
On windy days you can hear leaves rustling. But it wasn’t until this ice storm that I could hear the trees themselves. Before I realized how hazardous it was, it sounded like pouring milk over a bowl of Rice Krispies.
Snap, crackle, pop, only not from little bits of processed grain. From trees.
From what shade us, what filters our air, what allows us to live in the first place.
Rice Krispies are designed to snap, crackle and pop in order to delight us. But when that happens to trees it is the opposite of delight. The sound of trees breaking and crying felt like a horror.
. . .
In the story of the Garden of Eden, we’re told there is a Tree of Good and a Tree of Evil.
I’ve long struggled with that. How can a tree be evil? It turns out, though, that the evil is within us. It was human behavior that brought forth evil, or rather the danger, that can exist in a tree.
Only we can turn a tree into a source of destruction. We expect too much from them, and cozy up to them, and sometimes get fooled by their stability.
But trees are fragile too. A tornado or hurricane can turn a tree into a missile or non-exploding bomb. You don’t want to be anywhere near a tree that has been uprooted by force.
I sympathize with the hubris of winding our power lines through trees. And I nod understandingly when city leaders say it will take $1 billion per one thousand miles of power line to bury the 12,000 miles of power line winding throughout the city. I’ve got enough to spend an emergency night or two at a hotel. Alas, I do not have $12 billion.
. . .
And so here we are now, with the power back on. How soon we forget. The City Manager got fired, the ceremonial scapegoat for a calamity he had little to do with.
We kind of assume, well, the branches that fell? Those were the weakest ones. We’re good.
After the last winter storm, I was struck by how the emotional toll the loss of plant life impacted me. There was a row of agave plants my neighbor kept along the edge of the property. They were frozen and shrunken to death.
How does one measure the absence of plants one didn’t realize you treasured until they were gone?
The night of the storm, while power remained flowing in my apartment, the sound of ice pelting the roof and windows kept waking me up. It was not dissimilar to the sounds of the catastrophic winter storm of two years ago. Then as in this year, those sounds gave way to a silent peace upon sunrise.
Only later did I hear the sounds of trees cracking and falling. They are silent now, of course.
I hope we listened to those sounds.
They are warning us.
They are telling us we cannot disassociate ourselves from the climate, from trees, from nature. We must adapt, or we’ll continue to go to bed when storms approach, powerless to fend off whatever impact they’ll have on us, lying in our shelters hoping trees don’t fall on us or around us.
Something, us, the trees, the power lines, is in the way. It must be moved while we still have the power to do it.
This post was previously published on Scott Gilman’s blog.
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