Archives for posts with tag: Nature

FLORENCE UNFOLDS

 

Hurricane Florence visited last week and dropped enough rain to warrant a tsunami of cable television coverage. The forecasts were dire for our Durham, North Carolina residence.  A late shift took the worst of the wind and rain two hours south and left us with, essentially, a tenacious but otherwise unremarkable four-day rainstorm.  Some localized flooding occurred but our community missed the much-hyped direct hit.  Of course, I’m delighted the storm didn’t live up to expectations. Unfortunately, the impulse to disregard future warnings might be stronger as a result.

 

*****

 

Skepticism about the meteorologist/media combination is not new to me.  When I was little, my family listened to KYW News radio every morning during breakfast.  At the slightest hint a snowstorm might approach I took a rooting interest as fervent as I felt for any sports team.  “Maybe school will be closed,” I cheered/prayed/hoped.  My mother, a public school librarian, added her hopes, too, though with less enthusiasm.  Perhaps, having lived longer, she knew the unlikelihood of a large-impact storm in far-sub-Arctic Philadelphia.

I’m not sure why I rooted so hard for a day off.  School was not onerous for me and my at-home activities would not have been so fabulous.  Truthfully, I didn’t like cold weather and had limited enthusiasm for sledding, fort building and snowballing due to the resulting cold fingers and toes.  In addition, I would have been expected to shovel our front walk and might even have been guilted into clearing several of the neighbors’.  Two doors down, in particular, lived an ancient widow (I now realize she was probably in her 60’s.)  Somehow, a no-cash economy prevailed on 50thStreet circa 1962; she paid me with one or two old golf balls she had saved for decades or, perhaps, a tennis ball that no longer bounced.

Perhaps, I cheered on snow forecasts for the same reason I cheered for Nixon during the Kennedy debate or for the Cubs against the Phillies.  I wanted to get a rise out of my father who calmly, confidently, and almost always correctly intoned:  “They’re wrong.  It’s not going to snow.”

When it didn’t snow, my father never bragged.  In a way, his silence was even more infuriating than if he’d danced a jig in celebration. “Implacable” is a word that comes to mind.  “Smug” is another.  Oh, how I wanted it to snow.

 

*****

 

My early working life featured a couple of notable storms.   In Summit, NJ, in 1982, I was a first-month lawyer when the forecast called for some flurries, and it improbably snowed ten inches in the middle of April.  The storm disappointed doubly since I’d been counting the days to springtime, and it occurred on a Saturday.  I didn’t even get a day off!  Several years later, around 1985, a much-ballyhooed hurricane called Gloria aimed at northern New Jersey.  The forecast was so dire that the law firm I worked for allowed us to go home at the first gust of drizzly wind.  My co-workers and I gleefully anticipated several days off.  With sincere apologies to anyone who lost their home to Gloria elsewhere nothing stronger than steady rain ever reached Ridgewood.  We shuffled into the office the next morning shaking heads and complaining, as usual:  “Weathermen are idiots.”

 

*****

 

Moving forward twenty years my attitude towards predicted storms had inevitably become my father’s.  I assured my disappointed children as he’d assured me: “It’s not going to happen,” every time the television and radio foretold a weather apocalypse.  Also like my father, I was always right… until a storm named Floyd.

It was 2005, and we lived in Ramsey, NJ in a contemporary-style cedar shake house as leaky of air as a sieve.  The builder seemingly built it as a contribution to the utility industry.  Still, I loved the look of our house and, in particular, the fact that the garage was not visible from the street.  I reveled in not being part of the car culture dominating suburban America architecture.  Landscaping hid a driveway that curled down from the street to a below ground entrance.

Floyd approached like numerous events before it, as a weeklong media extravaganza. Reliably, the storms ran aground at the coast an hour southeast of us.  Alternatively, some storms came from the west but ran out of steam over Pennsylvania.  For whatever meteorological or topographical reason, in my prior twenty-three years of life in northern New Jersey, we never bore the full brunt of a hurricane despite almost annual predictions.

What I remember about Floyd is not so much the wind as the frenzy of the rain.  It fell sideways, splatting against the thin walls like hail.  The gutters gurgled in harmony.  And it wouldn’t stop.  For three days the rain continued.  As always, water rolled down our driveway and followed a stone path to the right of the garage doors through the backyard where it disappeared into the woods.  The first unusual thing I noticed during Floyd was that our back yard eventually began to retain a few water puddles of water.

Slowly, and then more quickly, these puddles resembled little ponds and then formed a lake.  My teenaged children gleefully raced out to enjoy floating in our backyard on a neighbor’s rowboat.  “Fun” I thought, at first, until I realized the water in the yard was approaching the garage from one direction and rain was still rolling down the driveway from the other.

“I think it might reach the garage,” I said, in unconcerned understatement.  I knew we had a sump pump in the basement for just such an event.

“Glug, glug,” went the sump pump continually from its subterranean hole in a corner.  Never having considered the matter before, I imagined the sump pump discharged somewhere distant.  Only during Floyd did I realize it discharged through a pipe onto our front lawn and, from there, the water eventually found its way back to our driveway.  But the discharge was only a tiny piece of the crisis; the first significant problem arose when the pump’s plastic discharge pipe, which ran up the corner of my wife’s office just off the recreation room in the basement, failed.  A spray of water shot through the air soaking, among other things, my beloved ping pong table, my wife’s collection of educational consulting books, family photographs, the kids’ astro-turfed indoor soccer area (didn’t everyone have one?) and a large carpet.  We turned off the pump and ran around frantically with towels.  “Nothing could be worse than this!” I declared.

Still, the waters around the house seemed to hold back despite a continuing deluge; the backyard continued to fill and would do so indefinitely, I imagined, for a few more ridiculously naïve minutes, while we struggled to deal with the sump pump calamity.  And then, as though one water molecule communicated a signal to a trillion others, the water at the garage entrance began to creep towards the house.  It was like a scene from a horror movie.  Even a perfectly functioning sump pump would have been overwhelmed.  The situation had become much, much worse.  In about ten minutes, the entire garage and surrounding office and recreation area succumbed to ten inches of water.

 

*****

Though I’m still to the skeptical side of the spectrum about meteorologists and media hype, Floyd showed how wrong I could be.  There may be more misses than hits, but having experienced what a monster storm can do, I learned a few things, namely:  the disasters that arise may not all be ones you anticipate; the media goes overboard but they are not ALWAYS wrong; and, it’s best to view natural disasters on television, from a distance.  I wish for a quick and safe recovery to all who have found Florence to be more of a hit than a miss.

 

 

 

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     Laying awake this morning it occurred to me that there are at least three things that mankind has been wondering about as long as there has been mankind, namely: religion, dreams and birdsong.

     We all know about organized religion.  According to Mark Twain, it has been part of human debate since the first con man met the first idiot.  Thinkers ranging from the ancient Greeks to Martin Luther, Mohammed, Buddha, Thomas Moore, and that guy on the television with the extraordinarily large ears have been explaining it forever and we are still no closer to a definitive understanding.  Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), a thinker no less cynical than Twain, but slightly less succinct, defined religion this way: “A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.”

     Dreams are another bottomless mystery.  Freud and others have dissected them.  Frankie Valli has sung about them.  Scientists have used MRI’s to determine which parts of the brain are involved with them.  Art and music and even human love and affection have been equated with dreams and inspired by them.  Authors have exploited them in the interest of telling stories.  Yet, these adventures still afflict and/or mystify most people most nights and we still have no idea what they mean. 

     A dream is a positive concept in most artistic and philosophical usages, Poe and Hitchcock aside.  Yet, in my own experience, dreams are more likely to involve struggle or stress than something wonderful.  To me, dreams are the best, or, at least, most indisputable argument in favor of some sort of soul or existence beyond the physical realm.  But do we know what that existence is, beyond pure speculation?

     Finally, I approached my computer this morning with absolute confidence that birdsong would have been figured out.  That was naive on my part, given the difficulty in interviewing birds.  Why do birds sing, I wondered.  Why do they sing more enthusiastically in the morning?  And what’s the story with the mockingbird, impishly running through a repertoire of songs?

     After what have doubtlessly been thousands of years of contemplation and study, human knowledge has only assembled the obvious theories for why birds sing: to attract a mate and to mark territory.  Did you know that the vast majority of singers are males?  At least that nugget of knowledge is verifiable.

     As to the preference for morning singing, theories range from the faux-scientific to the purely speculative.  Mostly, they contend that there is less humidity in the mornings and less wind, so voices can travel farther, though that does not take into account that the greater singing competition in the morning makes a cacophony that drowns out the otherwise more effective singing.

     Some observers think that birds sing in the morning because they have more energy when they wake up and, since singing takes a lot of energy, that is when they are more capable.  Conversely, a bird might not have a preference for morning singing; he is just too exhausted at the end of a day of searching for food and love and avoiding predators to put on much of a concert.  Speaking of predators, doesn’t a bird announce to one and all his location by singing?  Isn’t that a bad idea?  Truthfully, though PhD’s have been minted on the subject, no one really knows.

     I was confident that my scroll through the literature of birdsong would clarify the purpose and effect of mockingbird singing.  Scientific analysis has quantified that a mockingbird can imitate between 50 and 200 songs!  Are other birds impressed by this skill?  Do they hate the mockingbird for the confusion that he he wreaks?

     It turns out that most of what the mockingbird sings is merely fragmentary.  Few other birds are fooled, though some are.  Why, then, does the mockingbird do this?  To irritate gullible birds?  To wake sleepy humans?  Brilliant scientists theorize that the more tunes a male can imitate, the more impressive he is to female mockingbirds.  Presumably, they monitor the extent of his repertoire and, if it is extensive, conclude that he is a promising mate.  A profligate singer, it is speculated, will be better at finding food, building nests, fighting enemies and producing offspring.

     To me, this sounds like an exceedingly anthropromorphic analysis, ascribing human motivations and conclusions to an unknowable subject.  But what do I know?  All the preceding distillation of research is attainable by anyone with a computer and an available hour.  For all their similarities, have the three subjects of this essay previously appeared together in one piece?  I doubt it, but to boast would be obnoxious.  I wouldn’t dream of it.