Monday, May 9, 2011

The Grip of Grief

I don't want to mislead that every moment is transcendent, or that I'm any better than anyone else at finding redemption amid the dirt and debris of the tornado. Some days have been simply grueling, with one problem causing another, the system breaking down, and just plain exhaustion. And then there's the grief.

The aftermath of a tornado, even if human life has not been lost, is like a death. There has been this love affair - this hands on relationship with a home, or for many here in the country a farm,  for so many years. As in a relationship, there has been deep sustained emotional and physical interaction - the back and forth of honeysuckle growing, cutting it back; fences painted fresh black, and gradually fading to gray and beginning to crack in the Southern sun; the give and take that comes from seeding, mowing, fertilizing, grass growing, and mowing again. The thrill of beholding the hardwoods turn to gold and red, to skeletons against a dim winter sunset, and to yellow green. The expanding shade of the oaks in the spring, making an umbrella for picnics outside the kitchen door, and the fall winds swirling the tiny pin oak leaves into every corner of the chimneys, defying raking. All of these things involve reciprocity; the spiritual act of comprehending, appreciating, and nature giving, taking, changing.

Like a death by sudden tragedy, a tornado leaves you with too much change too fast to fathom at once. The mind numbs itself for protection. Then, like a death, there is little time to grieve for a while. Too many things need doing - endless lists of phone calls, questions, trying to understand disaster procedures and insurance policies -- and all that doesn't count not being able to get to the door because the oaks (the ones you couldn't bear to imagine losing) are lying like fallen soldiers around and on the house, having taken the hit of the winds, but blocking the doors and slamming power poles to the ground. It's similar to losing someone and having to make calls about hours for visitation and other incidental details of ceremonial ritual, and not a second to even feel the loss, for a time.

As with sudden death, life is instantly changed, never to be the same again. We are reminded of our smallness in the scope of the universe and the whimsical nature of chance by the tornado's casual romp through three states, taking lives here and there with no seeming order - killing a mother and her three children up the road, but leaving a china figurine still intact in the same house. The willy-nilly side of a natural disaster recalls Lily Tomlin's comically tragic routine about how we are all just "specks."

And as with a sudden loss or a death, there is the social context to loss - friends responding with well wishes, all welcome reminders of the "other" life out there on the other side of the fog of coping, but also  bringing home events in ways that there may not have been time to really digest. And as after a death, the physical exhaustion sometimes makes even a phone call hard.

And finally, there are the reminders that do not go away after a natural disaster. I find myself consumed in tasks, tractor clearing or phone calls, only to look up at the sloping forest across the valley that once gave solace, and now just keeps on looking like a hillside of broken bones.

You teach yourself to avoid the reminders. You don't look that way, you look out over open pastures where only grass grew and nothing could be taken away by the 200 mile an hour winds. You escape into the mundaneness of little things - which shoes to wear - the old tennis shoes or the really old ones. It's just dust and ashes outside; burn piles and powdery paths of the track loaders.

But we gather together, as in mourning. Each night the neighborhood meets at one of the houses with power, and we pull together a really good meal, and people bring food too. And we joke about the quirky things. And my neighbor who lost her horses and house and barn says to her husband, maybe we should move away, and he says, no way, I'll be #@%# if any tornado is going to drive me away. And in the pauses we notice each other's still faces and know we share something.

Loss takes us to a place of isolation. A relationship, or many layers of a relationship - a home, a tree, precious photos of a child, a landscape...  has been irrevocably fractured and that experience is different for each person.

But loss also brings us together. And dares us to find strength in solitude and strength in numbers. And the truisms abide. Each day it gets a little easier, and life will never be the same.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Inspirations from The Angel Oak, Part 3

The trials of the oak tree that held the house down during the tornado have inspired some beautiful words.
This is a verse written by songwriter Dan Cates, from North Carolina. Dan was a participant in the last Woodsong Farm Songwriter Retreat, the last gathering before the tornado.

The angel oak once tall and proud
branches reach to touch the clouds
though wicked winds blow deadly breath
the angel oak protects in death.

Thank you, Dan.

Mother Nature's Fickle Child

Of all of mother nature's children, tornados are the most fickle.

Some of her strange ways leave tragedy, and some miracles.

Despite the devastation that changed the landscape and lives in 30 seconds, there were more than a few miracles in our neighborhood.

Ms. Tredwell over at Crowe Springs was one. Usually referred to as "the old lady from Crowe Springs," she lived back in the deep woods in a concrete block house on a concrete foundation. A setting you might think is the last place the tornado could tighten its angry fist. It took a day to get to her house, with trees piled up down the long dirt road. Finally, they reached the house, to find the whole house had disappeared, save a piece of one block wall. Meanwhile, Ms. Tredwell was found. She was under a pile of rubble one street over, debris from houses not even her own. She was scratched up, but alive and well.

Then there was Jimmy Goodwin. He lived in a mobile home, and when the tornado hit, he was making his way to the well house down in the garden with his battery operated lantern. Before he could get to the well house, the tornado came in its hungry fury, swallowing up his home with a roar.

Jimmy was tossed over into the pasture, with long pieces of tin like hurled like knives through the air, any one of which would have sliced someone through and through. But Jimmy was covered by decking from the barn roof, and was unhurt. In the morning they found his lantern still shining, down in the garden.

There was a miracle on my farm too, a couple of them. My horses, hearing the roar of the tornado, had begun running, as is the deeply encoded safety response for horses and other livestock. After the sun rose, they were nowhere to be found on the farm. As I was still on my way home, my neighbor Amy had gone to look for them. "I knew they were dead, Louisa, I just didn't think they could have survived." That's because nearly every tree was down, with stacks of trunks and branches, and huge objects, made into lethal weapons -- culverts, pipes, boards, an HVAC unit from a nearby house-- untold objects were caught up in the roar and slung across the ground.

Amy had almost given up, and was nearly hoarse from calling. She is a trainer, and assists me with equine therapy with children at my farm; gifted at communication with the horse. Both quarter horses, Nikki and Zip, have a strong bond with her. And both horses are family members. Nikki is an old grey quarter horse, wise and independent, always the herd boss. Nikki is kind and sensitive with a child on her back, but as an animal in the herd, her message is "I'm the boss and I'm busy right now, don't bother me" (even if busy is lounging with one foot cocked under the oak tree by the kitchen door). Nikki has carried my daughter down trails on the farm since she was a baby -- first riding in front of me, then on her own.

Zip is a youngter, a 6 year old sorrell gelding. Like Nikki, Zip is super intelligent. He learned the Parelli method easily, and recently taught a troubled nine year old that there is a difference between power used gently and power used to harm. In the Parelli method, a wiggle of a finger means come forward, or move sideways, and it's all about listening to the subtle cues of the other and learning the language of the horse.

So Amy was doubly fearful as she tried to make her way around the farm. Nearly hoarse, she called out as she came around full circle, thinking them gone or missing. At she neared the driveway again, in response to her call suddenly Nikki poked her white head high above a pile of trees like a periscope. Amy rushed over, and both horses had been trapped in a swirled circle of trees. I'd planed the Leland cypruses in a long row above the arena 33 years ago, and they were fully 100 feet tall now. The horses had run as far as they could, reaching the dead end of the fence below the treeline. The tornado had taken the whole row of feathery trees and swirled them around the horses, wrapping them in a blanket of green 6 feet tall.  Potentially lethal objects like tin and pipes and planks with exposed nails were lodged in the thick brances, but could not get through. Neither could Amy! When she began to leave, Zip became panicked, so she called her husband and stayed with the horses. It took her and her husband an hour just to untangle part of a  path, and Zip did the the rest, clearly eager to be free.

When I reached the farm I could read their story. In the midst of the swirled trees was a small circle of space where the horses had gone round and round, frantically trying to get away. The muddy puddle of hoofprints said it all.

Who would have known a row of 6" seedlings I planted in the sun one April day in 1988 would later give their lives to save two of our own.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Angel Oak, Part 2: 300 Years

But trees are the foot soldier casualties of a tornado.  


Trees have souls, I'm sure of it. Granddaddy was too. He said once when I was about 10, and the spring sun was coming through the Nashville sky so piercingly that it seemed to unfurl the new leaves of the ornamental pear tree right before our eyes: "Louisa, you can't tell me that a tree doesn't have some kind of soul, some kind of feeling on a level we might not understand. Just look at the leaves on that tree, uncurling in the sun, bright green and eager to grow and reach out. You can't tell me that somehow or somewhere that tree is not happy. I think perhaps all things of nature have a bit of soul attached." 

If Granddaddy, a Methodist theologian and author could make such a radical statement, then it was probably safe for me to believe it too, I thought as a 10 year old. Besides, I already did.

It stuck with me, so most of the time if I see a river, or the rocks at the bottom of it, or a splitting glacier, I think, what is happening to its soul? How does the Ocoee feel about being dammed and released, dammed and released, or to carry all those gleeful rafters along its back?

And if so happiness, then perhaps grief attaches itself to things of nature as well. And if this is true, then surely tornado alley, as we call it in our neighborhood is a massive graveyard of mourning right now, here in the shadow of Pine Log Mountain.  Spanning a swath a half a mile wide, trees are twisted off at 30 or 40 feet, as if the whole ridge had a bad shave,  revealing a layer of blue we never saw that close to the earth. And beyond it, lower ridges of the beginning Appalachians that had been hidden by the treeline, uncovered now, and more intimate in their new exposure.

And the most important living tree, the wind-torn old oak by the kitchen door that held the roof and house down, is thinking something. Possibly it is thinking, I have done my job, it's time to go. Possibly it is thinking, thank you for telling the money hungry tree removal people to leave me be, I'm the only one left to watch over this old place, the only one with the DNA memory of birth and death of 6 generations of cotton farmers, boney mules and wood plows, and coal smoke coming up through my branches from the chimney over the kitchen wood stove.

I don't know. But trees take a long time to grow and a short time to fall, whether to an ax or a tornado. The angel oak reminds me of another sentinal, a giant fir I saw once at the edge of a clear cut on the way through Oregon as we drove down to "Bluegrass at the Beach." The loggers had come in with helicopters and giant fork lift claws to lift out 6 or 8 trees at once, 60 or 70 an hour, and transport them straight onto trucks headed for pulp mills. In a few hours, a whole mountainside of 100 year old trees can be erased, leaving only the useless branches and a few too-thin trees that didn't make the grade on the ground. A natural auswitz of sorts. 

Against this bleak tapestry, high on the mountain at the edge of the clear cut, stood a giant tree that towered above all those in the next section of forest. I thought, they must have come to it at the end of the day and thought, aw, let's just go eat dinner and get that one tomorrow.  And this tree towered over all--the eroding hillside and the younger growth,  I thought, it must know its time is next. And I wrote this song, an a cappella song in a minor key:

           Three Hundred Years
                             Words and Music by Louisa Branscomb

I'm tall as a lighthouse and green as the sea
most magestic old fir tree you ever did see
all the creatures around, they look up to me
and I thought that I'd be here till eternity

The music of silence brought joy to my ears
sounds of the forest for 300 years
then they came with their chain saws, the worst of my fears
the forest cut bear and my fate drawing near

Sing one for the money and two for the show
takes three hundred years for another to grow

The deer have all fled and the undergrowth died
the earth bleeding mud down the steep mountainside
my roots pulling loose and there's nowhere to hide 
they may as well kill me for I'm dying inside

Sing one for the money and two for the show
takes three hundred years for another to grow

I hear the big loaders they come up the hill
I know that I'm next and I know that I will
be stripped of my branches, laid bare for the kill
the wind howls around me and will not be still

do you think of your children who never will know
the forest that fed them, do you think they'll grow old
hungry for something way down in their souls
who gave you the right to take what you stole?

sing one for the money and two for the show
takes three hundred years for another to grow
sing one for the money and two for the show
I know that I'm next, and I don't want to go
sing one for the money and two for the show...

                  words and music by Louisa Branscomb
                  c Millwheel Music 1997  

from the CD Louisa Branscomb: Fool's Gold


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

April 27: The Angel Oak

Amy called at daylight. She'd gone searching for the horses, but could not get around the property to really look - the forest was turned into pick-up-sticks and it took 15 minutes to go several feet in some places. Finally as she came down the valley calling out, Nikki raised her head over

There were warnings, but no sufficient preparation. One path of flat pines across the interstate near Nickajack Lake, Chattanooga, my favorite rest stop to write songs that were inspired driving through the mountains from Nashville to Georgia. Signs flattened near Ringgold, GA beside the interstate.

Richards Road was a center of one, and maybe two, of the strikedowns the night before. Reports said the tornado was a mile wide and the longest in Georgia history. A friend found a page from a phone book from Tuscaloosa, AL, in his yard. My sister in Birmingham watched from atop Red Mountain as the tornado crossed Birmingham, left to right, on its way from Tuscaloosa to Georgia.

The first house I reached was the little farmhouse across the road. The giant silo from the cattle barn was upside down in the front yard, pieces of the house lying on the ground, walls standing.

And then Carla and Patrick's house. Or where it had been. It's an odd feeling to see space where you are so used to the familiar sight of homes that held memories. All that was left of the house and barn was rubble, a few standing 2x4's. By then I knew that two of the horses had been killed, and everyone was waiting for the loader to help bury them, the first step in trying to dislodge the memories from your mind.

Carla and Patrick, who raise champion Gordon Setters and train their horses -- all family members to them -- had left the house and gone to the barn to be with the animals. Of the huge modern barn, they ran to the dog kennel, Patrick tackling Carla and covering her to protect her. They heard the doors blow out, and in thirty seconds it was all over. Life was different.

When the house is sent in pieces to places you don't know, and when horse trailers and tractors are up in the trees as if gravity went crazy, the question isn't so much what do you think or feel, but how do you think or feel, because it's beyond usual roadmaps.

Seeing the space where the house was, I wondered, where do those memories of everything in those walls go? Do they evaporate? Scatter like insulation and tin across the miles? How do we anchor all the memories without the familiar walls that held them?

My little country road was blocked, and the wait seemed forever. My friend Timmy, who used to live in the farmhouse, had called to say he couldn't get to hte house, but to prepare for the fact that it was probably gone.

I snaked my way through the power trucks and road crews to park in a field next to the house on the corner, noticing that its gables were lined up about 30 yards in front of it on the ground, and the garage was completely missing, roof half gone. I walked through the fields I'd planted and tended for years, some of the farm now gone to new home owners. The most recent new house, the one that was put up in a hurry out in a field with no trees to take the hit, was completely in rubble.

The farm was carved so that there were open fields and walls of thick pines like islands around or through the fields for wildlife. Against these walls of pines the most bizarre objects and debris had been flung so hard that it was like a long wall of art, tornado graffiti, sculptures made of things even artists can't imagine. Tin, boards, clothing, shingles, car parts. And all the trees. The trees I'd sat on the porch and contemplated 30 years were all snapped. All jagged and all made the same height, 30 or 40 feet, everywhere you looked. Others were torn up by the roots and put back down who knows where.

Up on the hill where the farm is, the view I most feared, it was like a bomb had hit. Trees were piled around the house, which was still standing, but pieces of roof and walls missing and scattered around under and over the trees. It reminded me of a lone soldier on the battlefield somehow, the day after the battle.

It was not possible to reach the house. The 300 year old oaks had been slung sideways, root balls reaching up 25 or 30 feet, huge holes exposed below them. One covered the front porch and the roof of what was the sun room. Windows were blown out, and the old heart pine boards making up the siding had heaved but held, with angular cracks where some had separated. But in the front, none of the trees had fallen on the house, rather they lined up sideways, parallel to the house, like sentries. They took the hit, I thought, and that's why the house is standing.

Everywhere around was like an unimaginable dream. A mountainside of trees stacked and ravaged, only a few standing.

I made my way round to the kitchen door, that's the one you use for a farm house of course. The one I love because it opens out on the biggest oak of all. We've had picnics there, powdered donut battles, under the shade between the house and the fence where the horses hang out. The one that you can look through sitting on the couch and see the 150 year old mule barn with its rusty red patina and faded gray logs.  The one with the screen door with the curved metal decoration with the bird on top,  that slams with that familiar wooden thud, the rhythm of friends and family coming and going.

The big oak had been torn about half way up, and huge branches, each the size of most trees, topped the roof in a tangled massive mess. The old bricks, said to have been made right there down the street from Georgia clay, were scattered across the roof and ground, what ground you could see amid the tangled branches.

The story began to tell itself.

The tornado came from behind, rotating clockwise as they do. It wrapped around the house and slammed into the other side, taking windows and the wall of the sunroom on its way. Set on the house, the trees said no and took the hit, diffusing the winds, and laying down perfectly parallel to the house. Any one of them would have crushed the house to the ground. Circling the house, the tornado, with a vengeance, tried to lift the house away. On the far side, my daughter's room, it got its best grip, and the roof now slanted several inches above the walls, daylight showing through. When the winds reached back around to the kitchen they took the big oak, but they could only wrestle free the top. Still, the top of that massive tree was enough to hold the roof, and the house, in place-- only allowing it to be moved 4 or 5 inches off its foundation in the circling mayhem.

The tree stood, massive trunk nearly 4 feet in diameter, wiht all its branches broke and hanging like helpless arms. But it had not fallen. And it said no, you can't take the old home place. It was the old tree's 4th tornado, and this one took the greatest toll. But the tree won.

I dubbed it the angel oak.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tornado of April 2011

As a psychologist, I thought I understood trauma and natural disaster from pretty close to the inside. I consulted in the Peachtree fire in Atlanta, did triage in the ER in the last lethal tornado in our North Georgia county, and have worked with combat veterans from every war since Viet Nam. I have taught in battered women's shelters and worked with crime victims and foster children taken from unspeakably painful homes.

As a songwriter, I also trespass on the territory of the broken hearted.  I empathized with the victims of Katrina, and wrote a song from a story inspired by an Anderson Cooper piece on a man who lost his wife in the flood (Katrina), a song about 9-11 (Tuesday's Child).  A song on my new CD, "I'll Take Love," is called Surrender - the plight of the difficulty in returning home for a veteran and his loved one. (Dale Ann Bradley, co-writer).

And it sounds so trite, yet no other way to say it, except you never really know until it happens to you.

On April 27, 2011, I was not at home in North Georgia. Like the call "wolf," hearing there were tornado warnings in Georgia was not any redder a flag than all the other times over the years. So I continued unloading the dishwasher. So strange the very human and mundane things we are doing when disaster hits.

When a friend called to say the tornado was on its way through the North GA, I was a little concerned. Then she mentioned the name of my very own road, near Cartersville. I then felt the first shock waves of disbelief.

Next I called my neighbor, Amy, always calm in the face of things, who said matter of factly, "Louisa, we've been hit." Within seconds I learned that two of my neighbors had plunged to the floor in their barn, where they went to check on the animals when the tornado hit, only to stand and find that their home and barn were reduced to rubble, all except a few two-by-fours in the kennel to which they fled. Well, all but - as we later learned - a kitchen wall with a cabinet in which the china was undisturbed. Outside - well, there was no outside then - the John Deere had been thrown 80 feet into the horse trailer, which was up in the trees, and all three cars were tossed like plastic toys from the five and dime.

Amy promised she would try to get to my house but the rain was pouring and everyone was still trying to find out if all the neighbors were alive in the black night.  Our friends could not find some of their dogs, and feared at least one of their horses was dead. It was as if the images and words were travelling in slow motion, they were hard to digest. It seemed time was giving me time itself, to deal with reality.

Everyone has their own personal style of reacting to crisis. I found myself very still, and prepared - though you can't really prepare - I braced myself. I was aware of how little power I had to see if my old farmhouse, restored with love for two decades, or the giant oaks surrounding it, or the horses outside, were among the survivors. Times like that, you want to go to the things you love and almost nothing can stop you - but the winds and driving rain and threat of more tornados made travel through the mountains to get home impossible - and Amy said the roads were mostly impassible and houses were down everywhere - as much as they could see in the dark.

I called my neighbor Ted, who was still checking his barns and house. I learned of the first personal casualty - the giant tree outside the house where I used to live, the oak under which my daughter walked with her first pair of glasses and said, "Mom, look how many leaves that tree has!" The tree that heard banjos and fiddles from fall jam sessions for years. And marked time with its changing leaves, and housed the yellow birds in the spring.

I began to move; instruments by the door, phone calls to ready things to head to Georgia.

And that was a long sleepless night filled with the helplessness of being too far away.

Amy called again. She could not get down the road to check the house. Too many trees down, too dark to find a way through. Ted called, drenched, from next door and said that he had only been able to get part way to my house. It looks bare up there, Louisa, he said. The rain was so loud it was hard to hear. Did he mean bare as if the house was gone? Part of the roof was visible, he said. You mean on top of the house, or on the ground? I asked. Part of a burgundy tin roof, my roof, was in his drive many yards away. Flashlights were useless, he said, too dark, too rainy, but the lightening was like nothing people had ever seen, and when it hit, you could see ghostly visions everywhere you looked. Strange enormous sculptures in twisted shapes. Trees, tin, boards, things once precious turned into that faceless title of "debris."

For once I could hear the fear in Amy's voice as she told me the horses would run, they'd find a place to hide. But I knew she thought they'd be dead, from her voice.

Systematically I called all the adjacent neighbors. One by one, I learned everyone had survived. Two empty houses-- new construction placed oddly in the middle of pastures-- were leveled, rising and falling with never having had an owner except the bank.

My home, Woodsong Farm, was different. It was built around 1850, and lived in by a family of cotton farmers from 1903 until the remaining sisters died and I bought the old home place in 1996. It started as two rooms with wide pine planks, no plumbing, no kitchen, and two coal fireplaces. By 1949 it had another bedroom and dining room extending back from the original part, a porch, and three more fireplaces. Chalk-paint walls of planks pulled from barns and who knows where had been covered with floral wallpaper, now dingy, and the outhouse hole had been filled and a bathroom constructed. I'd taken the modern materials out by hand, revealing the pale green-blue ceilings and multi-colored plank walls; sanded and painted and fixed and shored up the old place. Twenty years of solace and solitude had passed amid the 4 giant oak trees surrounding the home.

Surely the spirits of the tough cotton farming family and the two sisters I knew so well, Gladys and Nell... a house made of wood on the inside nailed to wood on teh outside, wood from trees grown slowly, not overnight, would withstand this tornado like it had every other for 150 years.

But somehow I knew this time it was different, as if you fear hearing of a death, before you know the truth. I would have to wait a very long night to know if Nikki, Zip, and Woodsong Farm were among the survivors.