Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Paul Bunyan Jr.

Wednesday I got an especially early start on the patching work, because I knew that high winds were going to be coming in the late afternoon, and I wanted to be all done before then, so I could get ready.

We customarily get some pretty stiff winds this time of year: 30 to 35 MPH, with gusts to 45 MPH tops. Things get rather messy around here during these winds: Plant pots get knocked over, all the dead leaves and other debris get torn off the trees, the street becomes covered with those annoying palm fronds,  and the occasional larger limb comes down as well. So I wrapped things up early and laid the ladders down on the ground so they wouldn't get blown over and break something.

The winds came in due course, and they seemed rather more forceful than usual. I went to the back door and looked out. To my dismay, our metal-framed, canvas-skinned gazebo had been blown off its moorings and was resting on its side some distance away against the side fence. That was our first warning that this would not be our usual windstorm.

This saddened Lydia, because she loved that gazebo. I had fitted it with a nice bright light fixture, and she enjoyed sitting out there in the evenings. I told her not to worry, that it looked unharmed, and that I was reasonably sure that we could just put it back up and it would be fine.

By 7 PM, the winds were blowing a steady 45 MPH, and the gusts were more like 60. I began to get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Fasten your seat belts, I thought to myself; it's going to be a bumpy night.

The winds continued to intensify, and by 8 PM the steady winds were up to about 50. The palm trees were leaned over at a 60 degree angle, but I wasn't worried about them. I was worried about the pines, and the massive oak on the other side of the driveway. The upper limbs of all the trees were being whipped about alarmingly in the wind. At this point, it seemed perfectly rational to be terrified.

Somewhat later on, Lydia was standing in the parlor looking out the bay window looking at the relatively small pine tree right in front of the house. It was only about 60 feet tall and two feet in diameter at its base. She said that she'd seen the base of the tree wobbling, but I thought it was just her imagination. We went back to the TV and tried to watch a movie, turning up the volume in order to drown out the shrieking of the storm.

Then came a sound that could not be drowned out: a sickening CRACCCCCCCCK! We ran to the parlor, looked out the window, and saw this:

Oh, my Lord. What a nightmare! a 60-foot tree, down on the ground, headed right towards the cars in our neighbor's driveway. We ran out, dreading what we would see. This is what we saw:

Sweet Providence, it fell between their cars! It missed the car in the picture by less than an inch. Still, this blocked one of their cars from exiting the driveway, so I resolved to cut the tree and drag the top of it out of their way. I have a whole collection of handsaws, ranging from tiny to massive, designed for arboreal disassembly. I selected a curved one, about two feet long with vicious teeth, and started sawing. Lydia stood by to ensure that the cut piece did not roll over and hit the car.

Just then, the wind kicked into high gear. I looked up at the huge pine between the houses. We were right in its path of destruction should it fall over. I told Lydia, "If I say 'run', or you hear any cracking or tearing sounds, run that way!", pointing towards our driveway. I started sawing as fast as I could, and then some. When I'd gotten about halfway through, I moved to the other side of the tree, so it would tend to fall straight down. At that point, I had my back to the big tree.

Then, an insanely violent gust blew by, and I heard the sickening sound of splintering wood again. "RUN!" I shouted, but I couldn't run the way I'd told Lydia to go, because I was on the wrong side of the tree, and one of its boughs completely blocked my way. So I went between our neighbors' cars, ran down their driveway, then turned up the street towards our house—and right into the wind.

I've seen the gag in films a hundred times: someone finds himself caught out in a storm, he starts running as hard as he can, and he doesn't get anywhere because the wind is holding him in place. I never had any idea that this kind of thing actually happened in real life! Once I turned into the wind, I put my head down and started running as hard as I could, and after about six strides I looked up to check my progress around the felled tree. I hadn't even cleared the neighbors' driveway yet. It's a good thing that the big pine wasn't really falling, because I'd already have been a pancake.

I kept running as if on a treadmill until I finally figured out that I'd make faster headway simply by walking with long strides. It seemed as if I were walking around the block, but I eventually made it all the way back around the felled tree, and I met up with Lydia again on the veranda. We had lost track of each other out there in the maelstrom.

Once back inside, I felt rather silly having gotten so worked up that I imagined the sound of splintering wood. "Oh, well," I mused, "at least Lydia didn't notice my pathetic Buster Keaton impression."

Then I looked out the back door. The great majority of the south olive tree had split off from the main trunk—and landed on what had once been our gazebo.

Hey! I hadn't imagined that big splintering sound! Woo-hoo!

From that point on, I was all nerves. I was honestly afraid. Mostly it was perfectly rational fear of someone or something getting hurt by falling trees, but a little of it was fear of uncharted territory. This was by far the most violent weather I had ever experienced.

Look, I know that this was not terribly catastrophic weather, as catastrophic weather goes. I completely understand that compared to hurricanes or tornadoes, our event was mild. For those of you who live in Illinois or Texas, this sort of event is called December.

The thing is, this is California. Unless you live in geographically risky or foolish places, such as Big Bear or Malibu, you're not supposed to get catastrophic weather. See, that's the tradeoff. In exchange for the ever-present chance that everything you own will be destroyed in 60 seconds by an earthquake, you don't have to worry about old Mother Earth trying to kill you with catastrophic storms. It's a good system. I like it that way. In my personal experience, it has worked quite nicely for over fifty years.

When it seems as if the Basic Agreement has suddenly changed, then, it is certainly a cause for some concern. As I said, this was the most violent weather I had ever experienced, and I was reasonably sure that it was the most violent weather the Farm House had seen in half a century. I had no idea whether the trees were going to hold, and no idea what would happen if they didn't. With their size and proximity, and the light structure of the Farm House, the one thing I was pretty sure of was that a particularly fell, but reasonably possible, set of occurrences would kill one or more of us and destroy the house.

With this in my mind, I proceeded to be more terrified than I have ever been. It was like the first split-second reaction to an earthquake, extended over an entire night. See, in an earthquake the terror goes away in an instant, because my emergency response system kicks in, and I know exactly what to do. Here, however, there was nothing to do but try to keep my charges as safe as I could as the storm continued to rise in fury.

For the next few hours, that meant staying in the kitchen. It was of the newest, stoutest construction, and it was in the location least likely to be in the path of destruction. Moreover, if things really got ugly the basement was right beneath us. I managed to corral Lydia for that long; she surfed the Net cool as a Kool-Pop, while I tried to sit still and get my heart to stop pounding. Just after 1 AM, she called our arborist thinking that she'd leave a message, but he answered himself. Oops. But he was extremely gracious about it, saying he was expecting calls.

After a while, the storm stopped worsening and sat at the same level of intensity, with occasional gusts and infrequent periods of relative calmness. I figured that whatever hadn't come down so far wasn't going to come down as long as things didn't get worse, so I judged that it was worth the risk of going upstairs just to get some rest. Lydia slept well, but I kept waking up every time the wind gusted, because when it did the house rumbled ominously.

At last I fell asleep from pure exhaustion, and Lydia kindly let me sleep in when our arborist knocked on the door at 6:30 AM, ready to start cleaning up the arboreal carnage. Although the forecast had called for the gale to continue through the next day, by dawn things had calmed down significantly. I had stopped taking pictures after our caper outside, so Lydia took some pictures of the carnage before our arborist started to clean it up. It was still pretty dark at that point, so some of the pictures are a bit blurry.

Here's the olive tree. The broken carcass of the gazebo is behind 
and under the tree in the left half of the picture.

The big pine between the houses didn't get off without some damage.

This and one other smaller break were all that we lost on the 
big oak, thank goodness.

The broken oak limb from the front. This made a lot of noise in the wind 
during the night; I was sure it was going to break a window, but it didn't.

* * *

Lydia was a smart cookie indeed to call our arborist so early, because that allowed us to get our neighbors' driveway cleared in time for them not to be inconvenienced. Not that they complained. No, they were extremely gracious about the whole thing. Good neighbors are among the greatest blessings in the world. They were even laughing over the matter of the felled pine tree knocking down their telephone line: the line did not break, and was still working, until it was broken by the tall antenna on an AT&T service vehicle. The guy riding shotgun leaned out the window and yelled, "We'll be right back to fix that!"

By noon or thereabouts, all our fallen trunks and limbs were cut up and moved out of the way. There remains one major broken limb that still hangs from the front pine tree, right over the driveway and our power drop.

The red arrow points to the break. Note the power drop directly below.

The arborist was unwilling to try to remove it because the power drop underneath made that a very risky proposition. As it is, fortunately, it is in no immediate danger of falling, because it is still well-connected to the tree. At this point, we're hoping Pasadena Water and Power will remove it; otherwise, we'll have to have them disconnect our service temporarily so the arborist can remove the limb safely.


  1. Wow, what a shift in the weather! Frightening to see all that destruction.

  2. Talk about catching a break! The Farmhouse is truly blessed!

  3. A few observations and (very) random thoughts:

    When I started to read "Then came a sound that could not be drowned out: a sickening CRACCCCCCCCK! We ran to the parlor, looked out the window, and saw this", I thought (with some liberal literal translation):

    When out on the lawn there arose such a cracccccker,
    I sprang from the couch to see what was the matter.
    Away to the parlor I flew like a flash,
    Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

    When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
    But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny Paul Bunyans (and while humming the appropriate tune, "and a fallen tree on the front lawn" with all due respect to Allan Sherman)

    But I quickly realized that it wasn't Christmas Eve so that you must have been referring to a falling tree. If I had more time I would give a try at properly wording that old poem to reflect this modern adventure. Maybe later; I do have a few ideas.

    Now, about that vicious olive tree - if you had done some proper research you would have known that olive trees HATE gazebos. It's instinctual. I am surprised that the olive tree left the gazebo alone for as long as it did. I'm guessing that because olive trees also love people sitting out near them, the tree knew that if it did whack the gazebo, Lydia might stop sitting out there. However, as you probably already know, olive trees are very impulsive at times, and just can't let things go. It was probably already very irritated at the Buffetting it was taking (and since the market is down that made things twice as bad, since it couldn't yet afford to get its first share of Berkshire Hathaway). Ask your arborist, but this was undoubtedly more than the poor tree could handle and it took it all out on the gazebo.

    Now, now, about that pine tree which missed the Prius - although pine trees are notoriously weak, they are also incredibly rebellious and arrogant. The pine knew what the wind wanted it to do (smash at least one car), and although the pine also knew that it would eventually lose the struggle to stay standing, it wasn't going to let that stupid wind tell a mighty pine tree where to land. So the pine moved a few roots and branches this way and that and aimed itself to fall exactly between those two nearby cars. But then, almost too late, it realized that one of the cars was a dumb Prius! Its rebelliousness refused to allow it to hit the car, and its arrogance caused it to almost laugh out loud at the thought of frustration that the wind would feel when the cars remained undamaged, but the tree's disgust with the phony environmental-elitist attitude that the nickel-infested Prius flouted caused it to scare the hydride out of the Prius and come within a spark plug wire's width of knocking some sense into the pretender.

    Again, confirm this with your arborist.

    By the way, did the AT&T guys ever come back to fix your neighbor's telephone line?

  4. Jon,

    Wait—what? I had no idea such a soap opera was going on out there. Maybe I should ditch the arborist and hire a drama coach.

    Yeah, actually, the AT&T truck parked right away and fixed our neighbors' line.

    In cosmopolitan, up-to-date cities such as Pasadena, the Prius has been passé with the smart set since about the beginning of 2009. No, the in car now amongst our betters is Honda, and pretty much any Honda, not necessarily a hybrid.

    People who buy Priuses here nowadays do so for its good qualities. It is a great commuter car: quick and quiet, and it carries lots of stuff. Plus, in the wake of the spurious sudden-acceleration brouhaha, for a while Toyota was giving serious deals on all its cars.

    So stop casting asparagus on our neighbors!

    Get back to us on that poem, okay?


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