We don’t care for tropical storms or hurricanes whose name begins with the letter “I” around here. Ivan was a beast. We don’t believe Isaac shares the same DNA or directional proclivities, but will go out tomorrow anyway and gas up the car and truck, get some cash and a few gallons of water, plus some canned goods, flashlight batteries and candles. And chocolate. Lots of chocolate. Since 2004’s Hurricane Ivan, we ‘ve had a whole house generator, which makes us Hurricane Party central for the family. (It runs a/c for part of the house plus the refrigerator, lights, and oven. The cooktop is gas with an electronic ignition, so as long as the generator works we’re good to go for several days.)
The last hanging plant I bought was a sensuous, carnelian-colored Bougainvillea. Long tendrils draped and scattered tender petals all summer long. It hung on a wooden contraption lovingly made by my late step-son that, I swear, looked like a huge crucifix built from 4×4 treated wood. Darryl had drilled into the hard wood and installed strong hooks for plants and bird feeders. A tough Christmas cactus hung there, too, along with various bird feeders.
That was 2004, the year Hurricane Ivan made landfall at our near neighbor, Gulf Shores, Alabama. From our gate, up in the mid-to-north section of Escambia County, it is 43 miles to Gulf Shores. From downtown Pensacola, the distance is only 33 miles; about the same from vulnerable Santa Rosa Island. That skinny little necklace of land is the gorgeous piece of real estate known as Pensacola Beach. Any time I drive over the bridge from Gulf Breeze to the beach, a bolus of fear forms in my belly at the sight. That thin barrier island so crowded with high-rise hotels, restaurants, jet-ski rentals, bikini shops, bars, condos, private homes, a school, churches and people everywhere is sandwiched between the placid sound and the unstoppable Gulf of Mexico.
When Ivan hit, Buck and I were in Scotland on the tiny Isle of Arran. My spotty blog archives from September and October of 2004 describe that time. I’ve unearthed an Internet Archive copy of the Pensacola News Journal’s special Hurricane Ivan report here. I never did find the lovely Bougainvillea. The crucifix-looking wood pieces were twisted and partly smashed. Weeks later I found the Christmas cactus container, but no plant. We did find a small, but potentially lethal coral snake in the garage. Lots of things were misplaced, displaced, or replaced.
The middle of hurricane season is upon us. The rest of the country has seen terrible wildfires, floods, and odd land storms that have taken out power for millions of people for days. So far, our little patch of ground has remained calm. We’re grateful for the almost daily brief thunderstorms that bring just the right amount of rain and ease the high summer temperatures.
A few days ago, I bought another hanging plant. Its true name is Zebrina Tradescantia, but that ubiquitous purple-striped plant that will grow for even the most black of thumb is commonly known as Wandering Jew. I always liked them. I respect their hardiness and inclination to grab hold with a rootling and call a place home.
For a person who has eschewed gardening for the past 9 years, I went a little crazy at Publix the other day. I came home with an instant herb garden: Italian parsley, thyme, basil, dill and oregano. There is a space under open wood steps that connects the second floor deck to a ground-floor concrete patio. Grass sends runners into the soil there. Weeds flourish, but the lawn mower can’t quite reach in to mow. It is only a small space, maybe two feet by four feet, maybe a little bigger. It wasn’t much of a commitment to stick those little herb plants in there. But they looked optimistic, and inexplicably made me so happy, that I went to Home Depot the next day, and bought two “Sunpatiens” — a sun tolerant variety of New Guinea Impatiens. They are loaded with pretty white blooms. I also bought two tiny pots of Asian Jasmine, and a great big hanging Wandering Jew.
Yesterday, I went outside in the hottest part of the afternoon, got out the post hole diggers and made a space to move the black iron bird feeder/plant hanger from its place too far away for me to see well from inside the house to a new home inside the fence close to a back window. The ground was harder than I anticipated. Isn’t that always the way? An hour later, sweat dripping off my nose in a steady stream, my hair a frizzy dark cloud, the feeders were cleaned, filled and moved and the Wandering Jew became a housewarming gift for the birds.
When I eventually staggered back inside and got a look at myself in the foyer mirror, I had to laugh. My mother’s voice was clear as a bell in my head: “Mary Beth, you’re as dirty as a pot!” I dove into the pool, my body temp instantly reverted to its mean. I was cleansed and revivified.
The space under the stairs looks nice now. I went out this morning and said a few words to the herbs and flowers. The five-lined skink Buck recently rescued from the house is living there. He spent so much time evading us indoors, I really think he knows me and my habits better than most people. He knows that I may be half a bubble off, but am not mean or dangerous.
Storms come. One may come this season. It may break my sweet Wandering Jew into a hundred pieces and spread it all around the woods. If it does, I know that one day I will walk and find bits of purple pushing their way up from the forest floor. After Hurricane Ivan hit, and we cried over the loss of more than 300 old Longleaf pine trees here, we planted several thousand container-grown seedlings. They were randomly hand-planted to look natural, not like a commercial plantation. These days, those trees are twice my height; some three times.
That Wandering Jew hanging plant is an article of faith in a season of storm. Despair can take root, but so can hope; so can resilience.
When a truck transport carrying a big John Deere crawler dozer with a shiny disk harrow attached arrives, you know that trees will fall, earth will move. Even snakes will flee the vibration to their burrow's safe harbor, and wait to see what happens next.
Victor Cisneros had been working out in the woods for about an hour when I heard the big crawler dozer's low rumble. Buck and I were working at our desks. "Where is Victor working?" I asked idly.
Buck could see my head cocked to one side, and knew I was listening. "Do you hear something?" he said, already on his feet. I nodded.
Buck can see like an eagle, but wears behind-the-ear digital hearing aids. He is my eyes. I am his ears.
"Come to the door." Buck motioned for me to follow him to the back sliding glass door. He opened the door. "Where's Victor?"
I listened to the rumble. "There." Like a cold-nosed dog, I pointed.
"Close. I'm surprised I don't see the dozer."
Buck took off running.
Victor had gotten turned around out in the woods and was plowing new ground. The lines had not been worked on since before Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and that storm remodeled the woods in such a way that Victor's maps weren't much use to him anymore.
Later, he noted wryly that the next time would be a lot easier, especially if we have the lines touched up more often.Truth to tell, Victor did a great job under difficult circumstances, and we appreciate his efforts.
Buck and Victor Cisneros, Senior Forest Ranger, Florida Division of Forestry, Blackwater Forestry Center
Fire lines are also known as "fuel breaks." They are critical tools in fire suppression when wild fires erupt and can save lives, homes, wildlife and property. They also make a great internal trail system for people and critters.
Buck talked to the Division of Forestry last week to make arrangements for them to come out and re-plow some of the fire lines around Longleaf. Before Hurricane Ivan knocked us for a loop, back in September of 2004, we could walk a circle of fire lines all around the property. There were circles within circles and connecting lines. It was not quite a labyrinth, but was, for me, the perfect place for a walking meditation.
The forester will come out once the ground has dried enough so his brand new equipment doesn't bog up and run the risk of getting stuck. We're into a pattern of daily thunderstorms and showers right now, and the ground has been too wet to plow.
Hurricane Ivan took about 350 of the old growth Longleaf pines and hardwood trees around here. A good number of them wound up strewn across the fire lines.
Exigencies of life intervened in 2005 and 2006 to put path clearing not only on the back burner, but forgotten for a long time. Our son (my stepson), Darryl, died of a heart attack. He was 45 years old, much loved, and greatly missed. The trauma of his passing has developed scar tissue on our hearts, but as anyone who has experienced loss knows, the open wound never really goes away. His mother, Buck's first wife and the natural grandmother of my grandchildren, had died from complications of a stroke almost exactly 60 days earlier. Darryl's brother and sister lost both mother and brother within two months.
We were smack in the middle of a huge home building project — sort of like being in the center of a bridge with both ends on fire and no where to go but through the fire. It was an awful time.
The year 2006 brought surgery for me for a strange fibroid outside the uterine wall that no one was sure was a fibroid, rather than something else far more scary, until it was out and examined by pathologists.
I've been sitting here trying to remember what took 2007. Oh, yeah. No wonder I forgot. I put it into the File 13 of my memory bank. Buck's friend of 35 years, a retired two-star Air Force general, died in February of 2007, leaving Buck the personal representative of his estate. He had also made Buck trustee of a trust that Buck didn't know existed. The twisted plot line of the unfolding of this messy situation would make a Southern Gothic novelist drool. I'll leave it at that.
Life is a beautiful, horrific braiding of events. We stand at the mouth of the river and the eye of the storm, that place where rainbows are seen. Difficult days, we tread water. Glorious days, we fly.
When the forester clears the path and the circle is once more unbroken, Buck, Maggie and I will walk it again and again. Maybe we'll find anew the pitcher plant prairie where I took these photographs in May of 2004.
Fly with me. Let's soar above it all for a sweet while.
This is a reminder of why we take tropical storms seriously. They sometimes stall over land, head back into the Gulf, drink up that warm water and double back as a big time hurricane.
Fay hasn't made up her mind yet, and so we check the generator, fill the propane tank, and take other prudent precautions.
The photo here was taken in January of 2005, three and a half months after Hurricane Ivan hit Pensacola and the surrounding Gulf coast. We were very lucky to only lose trees, but there were more than 300 of these beautiful old longleaf pines gone, and I can tell you that we mourned them.
Buck and I were on the Isle of Arran off the western coast of Scotland when Hurricane Ivan wreaked long-lasting havoc on Pensacola and its environs. We had access to U.S. television stations via satellite, plus I was able to read the Pensacola News Journal online throughout the storm's aftermath. One picture I shall never forget was that of a man driving an 18-wheeler, the cab of which was teetering over the gaping edge of the smashed Interstate 10 bridge over Escambia Bay. The truck lost its precarious hold, and the poor man lost his life.
Today, Buck and I crossed that temporarily repaired bridge, and observed the amazing process of a new, higher, bridge under construction. I shot a few photos from our moving car. The cranes, boats, scaffolds, men walking, all of it curiously beautiful, a ballet of creativity and physical labor.