(2.1) Strangers in the Garden

Our first view of the backyard. The hummingbird feeder weathered the storm

It had been a wild ride. We woke to blessed silence and skies swept clear. Sky, sky, and more sky than we had ever known in this yard. We were alive! Our home was still standing. The roof and some siding needed to be replaced, most fences and the boardwalk needed rebuilding. Minor damages compared to those of others.

We celebrated our blissful ignorance two decades ago.

Our Norman Rockwell tree. Each spring its blossoms cover the ground with “snow”

That’s when we planted a scrawny on-sale discount-house crabapple up against the front of the house. Was this smart? No, but the tree survived and we were mighty proud.
After a few years of sputtering it exploded into a showpiece. Snow-clouds of blossoms in spring. Robins nesting in summer, and bright red berries for birds and squirrels in fall. This was our Norman Rockwell tree.

Until it threatened to engulf the house, tapping at the windows, scratching on the roof. Whose fault was that? We loved this old crabapple too much to be prudent, so we never got beyond idle chatter about cutting it down.

Eighty-foot pines against the house

Now we opened the front door to bright sunlight after the storm. We stumbled into a wall of three eighty-foot-tall pine trees. When had they fallen? No resounding thud. No shock wave. No roof cave-in.

The crabapple. The crabapple had broken their fall. But what a price it would pay.

The battered crabapple

Its form was broken, its crown disheveled. Over the years, vertical water sprouts would replace lovely beckoning branches. Forevermore, this tree would need pruning to keep its form. Would we ever cut the old crabapple down? No. It blooms and berries on cue. Robins still nest in its branches. And it saved our house. It has become a favorite chapter in the garden’s history.

Bob tries to make sense of the jumble

What other surprises from the storm? We walked the yard. We tripped. We got lost. We couldn’t find familiar paths. We felt sheepish, silly. Strangers in the yard.

Each time we turned a corner, we found another loss. A sweet gum pulled out like a tooth, trunk-like roots gaping. The full crown of a tall tulip poplar twisted off and flung clear across the yard. A young crabapple crushed beneath the crown of a snapped pine.

Where do we start?

A pine’s trunk was split down the middle, neatly, exposing half of its creamy inner core. It looked goofy, like a naked sentinel. The other half? Shaped like a dugout canoe and pitched against the back of the house.

Where was the garden? Intuitively, we had sited on the maple, the tulip tree, the twin pines, the birdhouse tree, the confederate-jasmine pine to get our bearings. Once upon a time, these trees had guided us along paths, been our compass, our landmarks. They had been the backbone of the garden.

Azaleas and woodland plants under the pines

We had designed our garden around trees, planting in and among their roots, suffering their unyielding competition with favored plants because they gave grace and timelessness to the garden. Not to mention welcome shade in warm weather, birdsong, and, yes, a living wall against roaring hurricane winds.

There is a fence under the rubble. Note the surviving pines

Curiously, the tallest trees–an ancient, craggy oak, a couple of scraggy but persistent beeches, and a monster pine–still soared. Had they struck a bargain with Isabel? Spare our trunks, and we’ll cede to you our leaves, our greatest limbs, and enough pine cones to feed the squirrels and birds of the world. More likely, their thick, wide-ranging roots and their station on higher, unsaturated ground helped them hold on.

The goofy sentinel guarding the shredded trees

We snapped pictures. We took measurements. Tried to get our arms around this disaster. We knew more about these trees as casualties than we did when they were whole and healthy. Most came in at about 75 to 85 or 90 feet in height. Good thing we didn’t know that before the storm.

They were tall but slender. They had grown up in hardscrabble fighting for minerals, water and sun. Most, we reckoned, were about twenty-five years old. Most had dark signs of disease, some had been injured, most had healed nicely. Their particular stories, now unraveled, were told by crooked limbs, divided trunks, and curious scars.

A welcome sign of life, this soaring osprey (Photo by Bill Bergen)

Enough. The storm was over. Sun shone with the promise of new growth. A lone osprey was keening overhead. Missing his aerie in a bald cypress? Chain saws coughed as neighbors cooperated to clear roads of blowdowns, and their smoke was flavoring the brisk autumn air. At night, in skies that reflected no man-made power, the Milky Way stretched out above

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