And then we crashed.
Yes, we were lucky to survive, we were lucky our home had survived, we were lucky we could manage the clearing. But how could a garden ever rise again from this rubble?
We were keeping an unofficial tally of downed trees. After fifty we lost count. Final numbers would be closer to three times that and would take months, even years to clear. Some trees would never be cleared, but we didn’t know any of this yet.
We were just beginning to grasp the idea that these massive losses would change our garden forever. Day after day, the sun burned our necks and blasted our eyes. We joked that we were rednecks now, but we longed for the cool deep shade that had once given our garden its grace and, yes, its mystery.
Most of our plants had survived the storm, but now they were being trampled. Strapping hired help were routinely hefting fifty-pound-plus logs on each shoulder. Could we expect them to watch out for fledgling azaleas or rosettes of hellebore leaves as they maneuvered logs into roadside piles?
(Particularly when we can’t weed a garden bed without oops! stepping on some innocent. We simply looked the other way.)
The damage, we discovered, was like lasagna. Layered, drunkenly. We would clear away one tangled layer and find another layer below and another layer below that. The chain saw never quit.
Along the shoreline, mounds of earth rose, heaved out of the ground. Each mound held five or six trees that had crumpled as their roots, in tight embrace, had slipped in saturated soil that gave no footing and slowly gave way to the power of the gale.
Bundles of trees had careened into the slip, where they lay on the water in heaps. Where their roots had been, caverns gaped.
The starry skies that opened to us after Isabel had once been a lovely grace note that nightly cast a spell over us. Now, sharp, clear nighttime skies and a cold autumn moon threw eerie shadows over a land now alien to us.
As autumn faded to winter, pine needles on fallen trees turned from green to yellow to russet. Barely noticed, they fell away and we began to see the awkward tracery of bones that had once been hidden by healthy growth. Some days fog
shrouded the bones in gauze. Some days a spectacular winter sunset splashed them with red and gold. Some days they were just plain ugly.
Of course, we could rationalize and describe the view as picturesque — even charming — as they say in real estate ads. Wildlife, opportunistic, didn’t much care about picturesque or charming. They used the rearrangement to advantage.
The heron found a niche for fishing. Turtles sunned themselves. Squirrels used the logs as bridges. Birds poked and pecked. Otters played. Grudgingly, we admitted that life in the hodgepodge was entertaining.
But winter was bleak. Sometimes pristine white snow masked the damage and sunny days added sparkle. On gray days the garden looked stark.
A romantic arbor, a Christmas present, was difficult to place. Arbors should have grand vistas of roses, benches, statuary. Our vistas were of messes.
Spring crept in like a wounded puppy. Plants began to die. A dozen camellias got root rot. A pittosporum hedge blackened. Hydrangeas became sticks. Too late we understood what was happening.
While they were alive, aggressive roots of pines and hardwoods had drunk copious quantities of water from the soil farther beyond their tree crowns than anyone could have guessed. Our needy garden plants had struggled for every drop they drank. Now, without tree roots to siphon the water, the soil became
saturated and the plants began to drown. We managed to save a couple of dozen hydrangeas by digging and potting them for relocation. To where?
Nor did we anticipate the weeds. Dark woodland gardens don’t grow weeds, but disturbed soil grows them very well, especially in full sun. Infinite variety. Infinite number. Infinite labor.
We did not know what to do next or where to turn.
This once wooded spot had been our wild place, complete, a place that needed nothing from us. Thickets of trees arched over the water from both sides of the
little slip, creating a luminous cathedral where ripples of light from a western sun danced on leaves and waters. They provided a grand, shimmery backdrop to our paltry efforts at taming the edge of the wilderness.
A visitor, watching the dancing lights, called it a fairyland. And so the land had magic, not because of anything we had done to manage it, but because of what we did not do, what we left wild. We had taken all this for granted. We never took a picture. We took pictures only of our own handiwork.
We understood now that the magic was gone and it would never return. The damage was too great. We could only disguise scars and wait. Time will soften the view, we hoped. And a sense of humor, too, might help to soften the loss.