One January several years ago, 55 mph winds coursed through our redwoods. I woke and walked down the stairs to light a candle. As I blew out the match, the lights went out, followed by the unmistakable snap of a tree trunk. I called my husband and ran up the stairs to my daughter's room. Before I reached the top of the staircase, the tree fell, missing the house, but landing across our deck and damaging the hood of our car. After the third tree fell, we gathered up our children, backed the van out from under the tree, and drove ten miles to my father's home. All told, 8 of our tan oaks hit the ground (all previously infected with the sudden oak death virus), one of them narrowly missing one of our cabins, one crushing the clothesline stand the ladder to the children's play structure, another taking the power lines to the house down.
Since then we've taken down the remaining infected oaks near the house. And called in a tree expert to help us gauge the health of our Doug Firs, oaks, eucalyptus, madrone, and redwood groves. In addition to taking a few questionable other trees down, our expert recommended listening for high wind warnings ( and considering staying elsewhere when such storms came along).
So this January 2010, Monday night at 3:30 or so a.m., when one of our healthy oaks fell (root ball and all) parallel to the power lines (60 feet of tree missing our roof and cabins), I hatched an alternate plan to sit out the storm with its predicted 60 mph gale winds in the day, expected to drop to 40 mph at night. We packed up and headed to the family house overlooking the Russian River, arriving just before bedtime. We rolled out our sleeping bags in front of the fireplace. As I stepped out onto the back deck to survey the river, bits of rain stung my cheek; porch lights from the resorts across the way and the arc of my mother's flashlight glinted to reveal the vast, brown, swirling waters, cresting up over the bulkhead of the patio, creeping towards the sauna building. Eerie, but lovely--the sound in the dark, of river eddying around the tips of the bamboo lining the path to the dock.
We slept to the hum of the fireplace fan blowing its warm air over our heads. At 7 a.m., I rose, took stock--calling a river mom for a road report--was it wise to risk the drive to school? No sonner had I hung up (having decided to brave it), than the house shook with a terrific series of bangs--of the unmistakable tree variety. My mother and I froze--grabbed one another's arms. Two of the kids were safe in the kitchen eating burnt oatmeal. The other, still sconed in his sleeping bag, I rolled away from the sound. We waited for the rest...of our imagined tree. I opened the front door, flashlight illuminating a 20 foot redwood branch extending from the roof, spear tip resting on the van windshield.
Adrenaline propelled me under the branch and down the stairs to back the van out. But the brute limb, as I backed up, just came with me. I got out. I thought about it--but not with my best "woods smarts"...I had a feeling the heavy end on the roof might boomerang down and take out the car windows. But at some point, your "woods stupids" kick in and you just take an action. I yanked the spear tip free of the windshield wipers. It teetered peacefully in the air above me. So I shoved it. Hard. Bam...the good fairy of falling tree limbs for wives dealing with storms while husbands are out of town came to my rescue. The branch crashed down perfectly between the van and deck, missing the windows, my head, etc, denting only a foot of the garage door and leaving in the bedroom roof a spike of wood, from whose tip rain dripped steadily down onto the carpet.
The next morning, waiting to meet the contractor, a light rain persisits. Despite the threat of skyborne limbs, I'm still here. In the river house, in love with the wide river. And the dim barn blue of a heron with its slow lift, heavy winged ascent, and breath defying u-turn in its neck.