“David, wake up! David, wake up!” I open my eyes and find Debra shaking me. “We have to get into the basement, another bad storm is coming,” she says. I had been enjoying my typical “on the couch” evening but quickly regained consciousness after seeing the alarm in Debra’s face and hearing the house groan from the wind’s force. Once in the basement, Debra turns on the small TV, and we see the radar image of the storm. Dread overtakes me, for I can see from the radar image that we are directly in the path of a notch or hook in the storm front’s squaw line.
The supercell’s first downdraft hits the house moments later. The house rattles, pops and whimpers in protest of the strong wind. We hear hail mixed with heavy rain pummel the roof and siding. The lights flicker, and the whole-house surge protector chatters rapidly as it dissipates a surge of energy from the power grid. I envision the supercell monster above us: a counter-clockwise rotating mass of unstable energy laying waste to anything in its path. Fortunately, our house sits in a “bowl” protected on three sides by steep ridges of sandstone. But the ancient oak trees that cover these ridges have no such protection. The thought makes me ill, and I know the worst is yet to come.
The supercell’s rear flank downdraft moves in with a deafening roar. The sound of the wind drowns out all other noise. The storm has unleashed its pent-up fury upon us. We look at each other in horror. Darkness!
Morning comes calm and peaceful. We are thankful for light again after losing power in the first wave of storms that lasted throughout the sleepless night. I have been sitting in the pre-dawn darkness by the picture window, waiting for first light to view the inevitable. Prairie grasses and flowers are laid flat to the ground. A massive black oak that has stood for nearly two centuries at the base of a rock outcropping, lies broken. Its wide-reaching top severed from its thick trunk and tossed 70 feet away. What was once a pre-settlement, stately, open-grown bur oak is now an asymmetrical “half” tree, all the branches missing on one side. As I scan along the length of the ridge, I see that the tree carnage repeats itself over and over.
I feel my emotions - anger, rage, resentment, resilience, perseverance - battling for dominance as I don my boots and slip out the door for a closer look at the damage. These last couple of years have been marked with one violent storm after another. I still don’t have the mess cleaned up from the “big blow” we had two years ago, I grumble to myself.
As I weave myself over, under and around the tangle of trees and limbs that cover our trails, the memories come flooding in. Sixteen years ago, Debra and I began the long and hard-fought battle of liberating these oaks from invading non-native trees and brush. I can still feel the comforting warmth of burning brush piles on a frigid January day. I recall the frustration of our first prescribed fire attempts where nothing would burn. And I’m comforted by the memory of discovering our first “oak savanna specialist” flower growing among hundreds of dead buckthorn stumps, and the sweet satisfaction of observing a pair of red-headed woodpeckers raising their young in habitat we helped create.
I pass by a small group of “teenage” bur oaks. They appear unharmed by the storm. Stout, robust branches and trunks covered with rough, thick, cork-like bark. Several of them are heavy with acorns. I remember when Debra found them, merely wimpy twigs buried in buckthorn and multiflora rose bushes (invasive species). Next to these teenagers is a bur oak tree trunk three feet in diameter and broken off roughly 20 feet up. My eyes follow two deep gouges in the earth and find the tree’s top in two pieces 60 feet down the slope - all that’s left of the “mother” bur oak.
I look back at the husk-covered acorns hanging on the teenage oak tree branches and then to the woodland floor. With the hail, heavy rain and wind flattening the lush herbaceous vegetation, young oak seedlings are now easily visible and frequent throughout. If it had not been for saw, muscle and fire, the oak seedlings and acorn-laden teenage oaks would not be here today, and this endangered oak savanna would be in its final throes.
The thought gives me hope; knowing that I was part of the catalyst that brought back this oak savanna. The losses from these recent storms are insignificant in the grand scheme, as long as good land stewardship practices of prescribed fire and invasive species control remain.
Is this too much to ask for, I worry? Perhaps, but it’s enough for me to find the strength to carry on today.