Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Irene, Part Three

September 13th, 2011

The call finally came on Tuesday, at a little past noon.  The lawyer who manages my work unit told me that we would be allowed into our offices briefly at 1:00, to retrieve files and other items.  Although my office was on the second floor, thus presumably safe from the water, it was good to have it confirmed that it still contained files and other items which could be retrieved.

Waterbury was an odd place, Tuesday afternoon, but not in any way I had expected.  The water had receded back within the river’s banks, just barely, but cleanup hardly had begun, so there were few obvious signs of yesterday’s inundation.  Buildings’ insides mostly were still inside them.  Entering town from I-89, I looked down the embankment to my left, into a trailer park.  I saw a man without a shirt on, standing in the open among the trailers, and some other people moving slowly about on

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Irene, Part Two

September 10th, 2011

Monday was a beautiful day, bright and clear, moderate temperatures, mildly breezy, just enough humidity to soften the air with none of the oppressive moistness that had led up to the storm.  I woke up, as usual for a workday, at 6:00 a.m. to drive my son to his job in Williston.  Then, instead of continuing on to Waterbury, I returned home, expecting a couple of hours of pleasant leisure before I had to be at the office.  It had been announced the night before that State offices would not open until 10:00 today.  After pulling into my driveway, I braced upright the trellis my beans were growing on, which had blown over Sunday afternoon.  I’d lost one bean vine, its leaves already withering and drooping, but the others looked intact.  I noted that my jalapenos were ripening, beginning to turn a fire engine red.  Then, repairs from Tropical Storm Irene completed at the Steinzor residence, I went in to turn on the computer, to look for the situation update the State had promised would appear on its website at 7:30.

My first inkling that we’d had anything more than a heavy rain storm came when I opened up and discovered that I, together with all other state employees stationed in Waterbury and Montpelier, was instructed to stay home unless specifically called in to work by a supervisor.  I carried my cell phone with me all day, but the call, not particularly expected, didn’t come.

All day long, listening to the radio, checking email and facebook frequently, the dimensions of what was happening trickled into my awareness.  A friend emailed me from Florida to find out if I was alright.  The irony wasn’t lost on him, of someone in Ft. Myers checking whether a friend in Vermont had been spared by a hurricane.  This and enquiries from relatives in other parts of the country alerted me to Vermont’s unusual status as the national media’s disaster du jour.  I haven’t watched a television newscast in decades, having decided long ago that teevee news isn’t a reliable source of information regarding anything I care about.  Learning indirectly that the national media was scaring people unnecessarily did nothing to change that opinion.  It merely heightened the surreality I was beginning to experience.  People were calling to to find out if I was alright.  The sun was shining, the basement was dry.  My biggest dilemma was whether to eat a bowl of soup for lunch, or the leftover chicken curry.

Later in the day, I walked down to Church Street and enjoyed an herbal iced tea at Uncommon Grounds, sitting at an outside table and people-watching.  Church Street was crowded with college students coming back to school, their parents, tourists, and probably not a few off-duty state employees like me.  Everything was bright and clean and unbelievably normal.  We had been told not to venture out on the roads.  I felt isolated, stuck in a strange bubble on another planet impassably distant from the “real” world, and from the world at large.  The airport was the only way out.  Now, for a person living in Chittenden County, a certain sense of disconnectedness from the rest of the state is ordinary.  As the joke goes, the nicest thing about living in Burlington is that you are so close to Vermont.  But now we could not go there.  Despite the tragedy unfolding only fifteen minutes’ drive away, we could not touch it, any more than it could touch us.

Part of the ache was my intimacy with Waterbury.  I have worked there for well over a decade.  That means, for well over a decade the majority of my waking hours have been spent either in Waterbury, or on my way to or from there.  I have grown to love the place, nestled in a bowl in the Green Mountains formed by a wide spot in the Winooski River valley; the homely, serviceable, extensive, architecturally peculiar state office complex, a hundred year old maze which once upon a time housed 1500 mental patients and where much of state government now resided.  Setting aside the obvious jokes based on the complex’s history, it was a humbler, sleeves-rolled-up counterpart to the neck-tied self importance of capitol city Montpelier.  If Montpelier is where the laws are made, Waterbury was where they were brought into contact with people’s lives.  It had a really good Chinese takeout restaurant, and the Park Row Cafe, and Vermont Liberty Tea Company where you could buy high quality teas from all over the world, and Bridgeside Books, my favorite bookstore – off whose shelves To Join the Lost first found its way into the hands of someone I did not know – and a corn field right behind the state office complex and the river right behind that, and a 3.2 mile looping trail you could walk during the lunch hour that took you between the corn field and the river, through a  cemetery, over a bridge, down a dirt road along the river, over another bridge, and back to your office, all in view of the rounded green hills.  Now all this was in jeopardy, and I couldn’t be there, couldn’t witness, couldn’t help.

Irene, Part One

September 4th, 2011

I’ve been through three hurricanes.  Well, technically, except for the first one, they had stopped being hurricanes by the time their paths crossed mine.

I met the first one in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The year was 1967 and I was fifteen, a passenger on the S.S. Constitution en route with my family to a year in Europe.  The ship was one year older than me.  We skirted a late summer storm which perhaps presaged that year’s coming turbulence of assassinations, riots, and war.  Of the hundreds of passengers aboard, my father and I, devoted trenchermen both, were almost the only ones to appear in the dining room that night.  Spaghetti carbonara.  Rain, wind, and ceaseless, extravagant motion.  Sleep soon after dinner, because it was the only thing to do.

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The Ice Storm

June 3rd, 2011

I don’t have any poems about flooding to comemmorate our recent miseries, but twelve years ago I wrote the following about a much more characteristically Vermontish natural disaster.  Its subtitle was “the day they impeached the President and bombs fell on Baghdad”:

A white accretion outlining their upsides
now defines grey tree limbs, which had stood
indistinct against a grey sky.  The bark
seems darkest at the snow line, shading in lighter
away from it, and where this morning they blended
into softly smudged horizons now they cut
each other with a charcoal stripe and blank
stutter where they cross, a bewildering
etched jumble replacing December’s
former monotonous wash.

I am cast back to January last.  Then,
something awful happened, a difference of a
few degrees from today’s gentle refinement
of tiny crystals layered like feathers, like
cotton ribbons on the branches, made
instead clear, ever thickening sheaths
from drizzle falling constantly day on day,
glazing the woods and glazing the glaze,
gloving twigs in inch thick thumbs, a
heavy colorless skin laid over everything
and nothing within it could be seen.

Crack!  A maple cleaved down the middle.
Branches began snapping.  Trunks split.
Ice fell through the laden crowns, knocking
other ice loose, as if a tray of glass smashed
to the ground, and then, thud, the body that had
carried it.  Throughout the nights the thicket
back of our house shook as if from gunshots,

and in the dim and watery mornings, more
boles stood stripped and lopped, stark, unfringed,
or bowed, too weak to resist, their elasticity
almost exhausted, poplars bent double,
birches that would remain humped as the
backs of old men for the rest of their
curtailed lives.  Saplings sprang straight,
tinkling upright, suddenly tall among elders
reduced as if by an artillery barrage.

Several times daily, amid that great sadness
like friends passing, we ventured out to
clear a passage through the street’s debris.
Emergency vehicles might need it.  Ankle deep
shards of ice the size and shape of packing peanuts
crisply crunched at each step, and at each
step we looked up over our shoulders, and
meeting in the middle of the road to haul
bits of branchy tangle grown unwieldy, weighty
as if under some other, more giant gravity,
we warned each other of widow makers.

Within the drizzle’s unceasing sibilance,
we labored and chatted in hushed, excited tones.
Then, nothing left to clear, we retreated
almost reluctantly to our separate, slowly
chilling, powerless dwellings, to the day’s
grey, even light seeping even indoors.

I am thinking today about my mother

January 2nd, 2011

I am thinking today of my mother, who died on May 26, 2009, after a long siege of cancer.  Her struggle at the end was not so much with the disease – you can’t really struggle with something you can’t see, touch, or for the most part feel – but with her body’s extraordinary resilience and vitality, which far outlasted her desire to remain within it. Her body fought on long after the war was lost and everything it was fighting for, which we may subsume under the pallid rubric “quality of life”, was irretrievably destroyed.

My mother was the most intelligent person I have ever known.  Most of us think of intelligence as the ability to score well on standardized tests, or to deploy fluently a large

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