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OT: Ice Storm (very long!)

From: Bill Shear <BILLS@hsc.edu>

Dear Iris Friends,

I was inspired by the Christmas Eve ice storm to write this essay, and hope
you do not mind my sharing it with you.  It's long, so if you don't have
time to read it, chuck it out right now!

After weeks of mild weather in November and December that had
brought spring-flowering shrubs close to blooming and enticed the foliage
of daffodils and tulips out of the ground, some said we were due for it
(those who believe that nature works that way).  By December 23rd, cold air
piled up against the east slopes of the Appalachians.  Streaming
northeastward from the Gulf of Mexico, wet, warm air overrode the cold.
Where the two air masses met, rain began to fall, dropping quickly enough
through the cold air to avoid freezing until it hit the ground, trees, cars
and houses.  The hissing rain deposited a glaze on anything that had cooled
enough to allow it.  Every few minutes a gust of wind brought the rattle of
sleet, quickly incoporated into the growing mantle of ice over twigs and
branches.  The warm ground resisted, and roads remained clear for a while,
but a crust formed, cementing together blades of grass and fallen leaves
and making its own crunchy pavement over lawns and the woodland floor.
        At dusk I took Ciara for a walk.  Ciara is an almost-Black Labrador
Retriever.  She is all black, but she is not all Labrador Retriever, giving
her a rangier build and definitely a more active temperment.  The freezing
rain and sleet made a white mantle over both our shoulders, and soon my
jacket was wet through.  By the time we had completed our two-mile circuit
down Townsend's Hill, around the pond and back, the footing was difficult
and the branches of the pines were starting to droop under the weight of
the ice.  I brought Ciara her food (gratefully received as it contained the
remains of turkey breastbone that had been used to make soup), changed her
water, and scuttled inside to get warm.                 Through the big
windows over the back deck, I could see the rime of ice on each branch
catching the last light of the day, first glowing yellow, then orange, and
then a strange deep violet that reflected the same tint in the low clouds.
As the rain went on and the temperature dropped to a few degrees below
freezing, we comforted ourselves with peppery turkey soup and fresh bread.
The continued sound of rain on the roof and the growing fringe of icicles
all around the eaves brought memories of a similar storm four years ago, in
February, 1994.  We had lost electric power repeatedly, and for us, no
power also means no water since we have our own well and pump.  So before
turning in, we filled large kettles and the bathtub with water against the
possibility that this storm could be an equally disruptive one.
        The next morning, Christmas Eve, the rain kept on.  Now the casing
of ice on needles, twigs, branches and limbs was approaching a half inch in
thickness.  That meant tons of extra weight for every tree.  I cracked the
ice from the windshield and drove to school.  Power was already out there;
we rigged a generator to keep the fish tanks heated, filtered and aerated.
I warned that unless the power was restored in an hour and a half, we would
lose the plants in the greenhouse where the temperature was dropping at the
rate of about ten degrees an hour.  Fortunately, the electricity came back
on in time.  The rain and sleet tapered off in a few snow flurries (hopes
for a white Christmas were not to be fulfilled), and I drove carefully home
over slushy roads to prepare for Christmas morning.
        We still had electricity at the house, and it was starting to look
as if it would stay on, but a quick walk along the powerline right-of-way
behind the house raised new fears.  A multitrunked Red Maple about eight
inches in diameter at its base was arching dangerously over the
transmission lines.  Sure enough, at eleven o'clock, just as we put the
last presents under tree, there was a yellow flash from behind the house,
together with a loud, electrical pop, and the lights flickered out.
        Noelle reported the outage to Virginia Power, concerned that the
call went to a number in Norfolk, 150 miles away, and not to the Virginia
Power yard a block or two from our house.  But the voice that answered was
human, not computerized, and surprisingly chatty, letting us know that our
experience was being repeated in thousands of homes across southern
        Flashlights were at hand, and we quickly set up to sleep in the
basement, next to our one working fireplace.  I brought several armloads of
wood from the garage to the back basement door.  Luckily, when we stopped
heating with wood a few years ago, we kept the cord of hickory and oak that
had been left over.  The three of us (Justin, eleven, marched downstairs
apparently fully alert, but later had no memory of how he came to be
sleeping on a futon on the basement floor) spent a night of interrupted
sleep, given the need to feed the voracious fire every couple of hours.
        Morning light, and still no electricity.  The sky was clear but the
sun is at its lowest point in this season and barely cleared the bowed
pines on the south side of the house.  The air was so cold that the weak
sunlight could produce no melting.  It was to be a cold Christmas morning,
but a happy one.  I heated a kettle of water for tea and chocolate over the
outdoor grill.  After celebrating with our presents we went back to the
basement to stay warmer; the upstairs temperature had dropped into the low
fifties.  By midafternoon it was clear we would not be cooking a Christmas
dinner, but we wanted hot food and to get out of the cold house, so we
decided to scout for a restaurant.  This without much hope in our little
town of six thousand; even the fast-food joints had announced they would be
closed on Christmas Day.  The storm had made it even less likely that we
would find what we were looking for.  But there was one hopeful sign, at
least.  As we left the house, a Virginia Power lineman could be seen
walking the right-of-way, and a bucket truck pulled in and parked.
        What a pleasure to find that the Smith family, our neighbors from
down the road, had decided to open their Shoney's restaurant to serve
people who had lost their electric service in the storm.  The fare was only
cheeseburgers and salad, and the only help the Smiths, but it was a
delight.  The dozen or so families who were there with us shared the usual
"lifeboat mentality" and talked animatedly of their experience of the
storm, and much else.  We listened to two tobacco farmers debate the
respective fates of Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton, neither of whom seemed
much to their liking.
        The heroes of Virginia Power had restored our electricity when we
got back.  As the house gradually warmed up, the last hour of light seemed
a good time for another walk with Ciara, to observe the woods under the
stress of the storm.
        Each species of tree handled the common problem differently.  The
young Shortleaf Pines bent gracefully nearly to the ground, and only
experience allowed me to suppose that they would, after the ice melted,
return to an erect stance.  Older Shortleaf Pines had lost branches, but
only a few, and then most of those older, lower branches that would have
been self-pruned in a year or two.
Reaching the pond, Ciara and I walk under a shortleaf pine that recalls the
full-moon bridges of Chinese gardens, but there is no water beneath to
reflect the perfect semicircular arch.  The top of the pine is securely
iced to the crust covering the grass.
          For the Virginia Pines, it was different.  The Virginia Pine,
unlike the Shortleaf, is not a "permanent" pine.  It springs up in
abandoned pastures and grows in dense stands of spindly saplings.  The
branches never self-prune, and a thicket of Virginia Pine is almost
impenetrable.  Virginia Pine has a brittle, very resinous wood, and so many
of these trees, at first bowing under the icy burden, had snapped anywhere
from six to twenty feet above the ground.  Falling crowns of Virginia Pines
crash into other, bowed trees and bring them down; when one falls the
domino effect spreads outward. These clearings will be filled in the coming
years with Tulip Poplar, Rock Elm and Tupelo, for the Virginia Pine is
rarely self-replacing.  A Virginia Pine over fifty is remarkable.  A
solitary specimen left when our lot was cleared twenty-five years ago died
this summer and had to be taken down.  I counted fifty-six rings, making
this tree a Methuselah among Virginia Pines.  In the storm of 1994, we lost
more than forty of these pines from our land.  The crowns were sawed up and
left where they fell to provide shelter for wildlife.  The stubs of trunk,
now heavily infested with insects, have become attractive to several kinds
of woodpeckers, including the crow-sized Pileated.
        Massive White Oaks which have grown in the clear produce spreading
branches that join the trunk at nearly a right angle, supposedly the
strongest possible link between trunk and branch.  When the weight of the
ice exceeds the strength of the wood, these theigh-thick branches crack
near the trunk with a report like a gunshot, and the whole mass, tons of
ice and tons of wood, comes crashing straight down through the tree,
landing with a hollow boom and a clatter of shattered ice and smaller
        Red Cedars, the most dignified evergreens of our woods, seem
largely unaffected by their coating of ice.  The rigid, gnarled trunks are
unbending.  The only concession of these sturdy trees to the ice is the
graceful curve of the growing tip.  And yet such trees must at times go
over--we see them in the woods with trunks at angles to the ground, and the
new growth strongly upright.  I suspect they are more likely to be
uprooted, the trunks are so rigid and so strong.  The huge discs of dirt
and roots flipped up when a tree does go over this way are important
features in a forest. The hole left by the mass becomes a temporary pond, a
nursery for dragonflies and the mosquitos they eat, as well as for frogs
and salamanders.  The disc itself provides a rare commodity in the
woods--bare soil, and this is required for the regeneration of several
kinds of trees.  The eventual weathering and decay of the disc and the slow
filling of the hole produce a characteristic hummocky terrain.  And who,
walking almost any marked "nature trail" in a national park or forest, has
not seen and read the classic "Fallen Giant" sign, describing how a
prostrate log provides a nursery for tree seedlings of other species.  I
can quote this sign from memory!
        Just as we turn down the driveway to home, there is a crackle from
the back yard.  A large limb has snapped and fallen from the Yellow-wood.
This spring our seed-grown Yellow-wood was the most beautiful of trees,
with smooth gray bark, an elm-like crown, and festooned with thousands of
long clusters of fragrant white flowers.  The Yellow-wood is a true
aristocrat among American trees and should be more widely planted.
Xanthoxylum  is a genus of just two species, our American one, native to
the region around the Great Smoky Mountains, and a Chinese species of
equally limited distribution.  The seeds which grew our thirty-year-old
specimen came from a larger tree which grew in the courtyard of the Museum
of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while I was a student
there.  That tree is long gone, a casualty of the museum's expansion, but
here in Farmville I was surprised to find a few truly huge individuals in
the front yards of Victorian houses off High Street, and one inexplicable
giant towering over second-growth woods on the road north out of town.
Perhaps it, too, was once a yard or garden tree.
        As the trees respond differently to the stress of an ice storm, so
do people.  Some maintain their equilibrium during days of power outages
and spring back quickly when normal life is restored.  Others complain
bitterly about "the power company" and its seeming inability to fix their
electricity.  Still others reach out to help.  It takes many kinds of trees
to make a forest, and many kinds of people to make a community.

Bill Shear
Department of Biology
Hampden-Sydney College
Hampden-Sydney VA 23943
FAX (804)223-6374

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