Shaun, with shades of Andrew

Saturday, September 12, 2015 0 Permalink 0

A reminiscence on letting go of trees

Indiscriminate Nature discriminates plenty

IMG_5177 (Small)Shaun, the Mr. Haddock of an earlier post called Mr. Haddock’s Hammock which was written after my first tour of his fledgling oak tree botanical garden, at a moment that now seems an eternity ago, suffered grave damages in the violent storms of August 31st this year. I went over to his place to help clean up the debris yesterday.

His arboretum seems to have been the epicenter of the storm. On the hilltop at the entrance of his acreage, most large trees were down and none were undamaged. I have not yet seen any worse wreckage anywhere in our region.

It was a localized tornado type event. The land on either side is relatively unscathed, but the storm cut a tight path of destruction right through the center of Shaun’s hectarage, as if singling him out.

It is a cruel irony that the worst damage would be in precisely the worst place for it, a place where specimen trees mean everything, and have been carefully planted and nurtured for decades, most of them from seed. And now, so many are down, to be chopped into small pieces and used as firewood.

Déjà vu

Mr. Haddock, and Englishman, is still stunned but positive in outlook, in that stiff-upper “Onward!” way for which his culture is famous. He didn’t even say how bad the damage was when some of us offered to come help. He just accepted the help, which was perhaps admission enough from an Englishman that things were really, really bad.

IMG_5188 (Small)When I headed over there, I saw some impressive storm debris sporadically here and there along the way – a wall crushed by trees, some powerlines down, an orchard mowed flat, clay tuiles broken by the road – but happily not much in the rolling hills approaching the arboretum.

But then at the end of his road as I approached the gate to his place, my chin dropped. I parked in the only place I could. The rest of the driveway was blocked.

I tried to get my own emotions under control before I went looking for others on the property. It choked me up: Glory felled.

And it was just there, just had been there few short days before… How can it be so totally gone now?

And then:

Where have I heard these thoughts before? 

Déjà vu.

August 1992

23 years ago, Hurricane Andrew. I stepped off a plane into a Miami unlike the city I had known before, a city reshaped by wind, scoured of its trees and utterly demoralized:

A trolley-car buffet salad bar was smashed in the driveway like the wreck of a UFO, its sneezeguard now molded over in green haze;
Snapshots of people frozen in the act of saying “Cheese!” scattered along the roadsides, their faces striped by tires and water marks and the muddy tracks of flipflops that coursed what used to be sidewalks;
The capsized porta-john lobbing in the swimming pool which stayed there for months, oozing that blue-green lumpy putritude over the surface of the water, ruining forevermore the idea of swimming in a clean blue backyard pool;
A steel girder radio tower laid supple longways over a strip mall like a sarcastic reclining Buddha by a vengeful Tatlin, hand to the hip;
The acres of South Florida slash pines twisted into corkscrews extending the infinite distance to the horizon of the Everglades;
The banyans big as apartment buildings tossed like giant tumbleweeds into the roads;
A toothbrush I found in a section of aluminum gutter which was wrapped around a pickup truck which was sinking into the marsh four blocks from the road, the elements still recognizable from a former life, but now all in the wrong arrangement;
And, as strange as anything else, the aviary of the zoo burst open, so that exotic birds lit occasionally at head height in what was left of the trees, a surreal spot of wonderment in the long stolid depressing days of the cleanup which followed, as the chainsaws roared and the smell of gasoline mingled in the steam of August, September, October…

The tap of keyboards processing loans for FEMA, the view at dawn over a broken landscape from the Metrorail platform, threatened by muggings in a city where law was bent to the breaking point, the smell of mildew and dank vegetable rot, the monkey-puzzle trees shorn every one to one side, ragged outcrops as reminders of the direction the storm blew – the memories run deep, because I was young then. I had just walked across a university stage to accept my diploma. FEMA was my first job. Life was just beginning in the real world.

And I had no idea – no idea at all, though I had lived in hurricane zones most of my short life – that nature could be so cruelly capricious.

Sandra’s Song

In a single night, it was all gone, she said.

If I had known that afternoon before, when we were preparing for the storm, when they had already told us it was coming, if I had known when I drove in the stationwagon down Daroco between the tall trees and lush yards – you could not see the ugly concrete houses before, just the jungle – and when I turned down Maynada and cruised down that long avenue of old banyans with bromeliads weighing down their branches so thick that it was dark inside like a tunnel, cool and scented with tropical blooms.

I turned and went around Alhambra Circle, by the palms, past the National Hurricane Center with the big concrete ball on top to house the radar, and I fetched the new kitten from my daughter’s apartment. It was scared and didn’t want to go with me, but I put it in the car and drove back to the house.

I don’t remember the drive back. I was preoccupied with comforting the kitten, and the short trip between our two homes was so normal, just as it always had been. I didn’t pay attention to any of it. Redlight, greenlight, gas pedal, brake. The rote turns which I had made a thousand times before, and I was home. 

If I had only known it would be the last time to see that roof, that radar, and all those limbs and vines and orchids and bromeliads, the last time to pass through that magnificent tree tunnel in the car, underneath a half-century of undisturbed jungle growth.

If I had known, maybe I would have driven more slowly, that last time. I would have looked up, at least. I would have taken the long way back.

But as it was, I took the kitten straight back to the house and closed the door behind me for the night. And after that, when I opened that door again the next morning, it was all gone.  

Sandra was also (and still is) English, one of the strongest women I have ever known. I paraphrase but she put it exactly and poignantly right: If we had known the future, we would have paid more attention in those last hours to what was. To have stored up somehow for the long crisis, maybe, or just to have known better and finally what had been our world, to have perfected our knowledge and memory of it at the last minute.

But no one knew. You just went through this sudden massive metamorphic disruption like a warp of time and space, the pulverization of reality, and you surfaced again in a surreal landscape where nothing you took for granted would ever be the same again.

We are so proud, she said also, another morning soon afterward, at the table with a cup of strong English tea.

We are so proud of our great and mighty civilization, our conquest of the land, our electrical grid and connectivity and telephones and ice machines and medical system. And along comes this one sneeze from nature, not even a big one but medium-sized, in the scale of things, and all of it goes sliding back into the swamp and you are standing on a tropical peninsula in the blazing stinking heat of August without clean water or ambulance service or even a way to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Not even any street signs to know for sure where you are. You quickly end up waving your hands over your head at passing helicopters like those films of isolated primitive tribes in the Amazon who’ve never known Western civilization.

I will never be that thoughtlessly proud again. I will never have an ice cube in my glass again but that I know just exactly how fragile it all is. 

All that is was what I remembered in Shaun’s driveway in an instant, with a lump in my throat that forced tears to my eyes. And that is what I thought about all day cutting Shaun’s precious oak trees into firewood.

La Bergerette

IMG_5186 (Small)This storm in France was not my former trauma, now nearly a quarter century ago. It is a new one. But I drew on what experience I had. I took my chainsaw from the car. I suited up to do what must be done. In each of those actions, I was imitating others I had seen before in another faraway place, doing what they had to do. It was as though the fresh cut had become a memorial.

I found Shaun. He was tinkering with his equipment, readying it for a big work day, like so many big work days before and so many to come. August, September, October… 

I remembered Randy and John and Euan and Annabel and Sandra, who had suffered back then when I was just a late-comer to the scene, just as I was now for Shaun. We only lost a single large branch at le Camparol. We had no idea what others were going through that same night until a fireman friend started posting photos on his Facebook page of his round-the-clock shifts the next day.

What did they do, back then, the ones I looked up to? They picked up the pieces. They filed claims. They documented. Above all they cut limbs and cleared roads and roofs. They did what we did at FEMA Headquarters during all those weeks afterward. I could do that now.

You do the next right thing. Take photos of the damage which no one will ever understand, because in 360-degree panorama with all five senses it’s a whole different matter than in a little bounded frame on the screen on the news which you see with a sympathetic shake of the head with your morning coffee. Immersion day after day in the aftermath is a very different sensation.

Then you have a good sob, and take an inventory of blessings where you already can. Do that first. 

Yes, blessings. Yes, they’re there. It could be worse.

And then you finish your stiff builders’ tea, and you go out and put one foot in front of the other. Do just one thing at a time. The danger is in not knowing where (or how) to begin. Don’t get overwhelmed in the chaos. Don’t do it all, just one thing. Don’t get lost. 

What do you say to someone after a sudden loss of this magnitude? It’s like a death.

IMG_5168 (Small)

Mr. Haddock and his chainsaw.

He was putting fuel in two tractors by the hangar, in a pathway he’d cut out already between two giant toppled trees.

“Are you alright? Emotionally, I mean. This is a big one.”

The answer was dignified but vague. Who could be alright in this? 12 days is enough time in the cycle of grief to stop denying, but it’s not enough time to accept.

M. had said to me wisely as I left the house that morning, “Don’t try to control things. You have a bad habit of that. But your job there today will not be to clean up trees as much as to support your friend, and to help him to grieve and to rebuild.”

And so it was. I was not much help otherwise. There was simply too much. It was like emptying the ocean with a teaspoon. I hope I will get the chance with that spoon again soon. It’s worth it, for all of us.

Tea and biscuits

Sometimes under the debris there were seedlings of the tree that had been felled. But more often it was a discovery that things were worse than they first appeared. Shaun kept a stiff upper lip the whole time, and he, half again my age, kept cutting and lifting debris stoically long after I had given out physically.

For now there was only to clean and assess. The truth is not even yet known of what the damages mean.

They say the English can do anything, given enough tea and biscuits. Remembering Miami, while I lived with them there, too, after a storm, I believe that is true. And Mr. Haddock, right on cue, made us cups of strong black English “builders’ tea” and cheddar biscuits after lunch.

While he served these, he spoke rhapsodically about the future of the arboretum, not its past. His eyes were seeing past this reality to somewhere else. What to plant next, what to tip up and cable, and what to let go and lay out differently, who will tend the land 25 years from now. And in 50 years. He said he would be writing an account for the Oak Society of how certain trees had fared, to make “use” of the experience.

“I can do the clearing myself, most of it anyway. It just takes time. But I would like your help most,” he said, “in finding the courage to decide what to let go instead of trying to save.” What to try to save? He must be seeing another landscape somewhere else. 

But when we went back out to work, it was true that I saw the damage as less shocking somehow. The initial disorientation was wearing off. This is the new reality. Or as we can call it, just “reality.”

Mr. Haddock, Shaun, held out a cut section of branch from one of his precious oaks and waved it under my nose. I’m an oak addict!, he proclaimed cheerily. The smell intoxicates me. Are these not wonderful plants!? Magnificent trees. Magnificent trees…

Even from such desolation, it will grow again. He will see to it.



(Photo: Andrew Itkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

I last saw Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden 18 years after the ravages of Hurricane Andrew. It was recovering – indeed someone who never knew it before would not even know there had been a storm.

But for what used to be to come back fully, it takes a long time, even near the tropics.

When I last visited Fairchild, there were no more exotic birds escaped from the zoo, no salad bars in the street, no powerlines down. But the canopy is nowhere near as tall nor as grand as it used to be. There are not as many epiphytes in the trees. That earlier time, we did not appreciate enough then, was the result of 60 years of uninterrupted growth. Really it was extraordinary and might not be expected to return again in our lifetimes. But it’s only our aesthetic sense that is offended. The rest regrows.

There is also, in the realm of memory, the paradox ascribed to Zeno of Elea. In that sense it cannot ever come fully back, because our own idealizations will not allow it. Is this a defensive tactic against future loss? Or the aggrandization, born of grief, of a past that might not have ever seemed so perfect, had we actually looked up in the canopy that last day and taken mental note of the former reality, imperfections and all.

I did not live through the eye of either storm. I only heard about them. I arrived only for the aftermath and cleanup. I knew before and after, but not during. All that came from other people’s stories.

And thinking back, I cannot say that there were ever many orchids in the banyan tunnel over Maynada Drive – bromeliads, yes. But orchids? Were there scented orchids, really?

No. I am conflating those lush suburban memories with the adjacent tropical garden proper, where the orchids were meticulously staged for maximum effect in boughs over the walkways. Those won’t ever “come back” unless someone cultivates them in a hothouse and wires them back up to the branches again.

The thing that is certain in both instances, wild and cultivated, is that all of it was stripped away by Andrew. And the grief, even so many years later, makes halcyon every branch of every tree before the storm.

In reality when I first saw Shaun’s arboretum earlier this year, it was a fledgling space still very much in process. It remains in process, a little wiser for the beating. We must remember that. No goals are to be found in the past. Memories are not reliable benchmarks.


I realized in writing this reminiscence that I don’t remember anymore where the giant concrete radar ball landed when it was ripped off the top of the National Hurricane Center. I used to know that as a central fact of existence.

The ball was blown off NHC Headquarters by Annabel’s apartment and landed all the way over in…

But I don’t know the rest of that sentence anymore, and I am only too happy to find that you can, in fact, forget such things that seem indelible at the time.

May it all go that way eventually, forgotten. The annus horribilis, the English called 1992. You clean up and you go on. My prayer for Shaun is that this interlude of chaos and destruction will be forgotten, that the cut branches will flourish in memory and that new trees will sprout and elongate to fill their places. And that the painful process to get there will be totally, completely forgotten one day when he comes outside to work in the reborn arboretum again just a few years from now.

There is not a choice, really. Not a choice at all. This is the new reality. The hand he and we are dealt. And oaks, like us, are living things. They do grow, no matter what. There is only one direction to grow: Onward. Magnificent trees!

After tea he was the first standing up putting his gloves back on.

Start cutting here. Mind the seedlings beneath as you go. Lift up and off, don’t drag. Ready? Go…