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.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful story..."The Angel Oak". God bless her and her wonderful strength and courage. Jeannine