Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Storm


The storm recedes at dawn, photo by Jim Gaston


       I awakened on Saturday morning about four o’clock, and fixed up a cup of coffee before going out on my screened porch in the darkness to sit and listen to the gentle rain falling.


       It is strange for me to have a time that it is difficult to write, or to go through a time when I have trouble sleeping through the night.  But I am troubled now, by what is going on in the Ozarks, and the nation. There are some nightmares in which I see things coming I would not like to see. 


       My perch here on the highest point of this county looks out across a wide river valley, and the distant ridge on the other side of it is miles and miles away.  But there on the porch as I relax in an old rocking chair and listen to the rain, I can see that far-away ridge from time to time, in flashes of white which play across the western sky.  I try to count off seconds between the time I see it and the time I hear the thunder.  At first it is 22 seconds.  I think that is supposed to mean the storm is that many miles away.  That rumbling of thunder in the darkness is a beautiful sound, combined with the slow rain on the metal roof.


       I thought, that morning, of all the nights I have laid in a gravel bar tent, just loving the sound of a gentle rain falling through sycamore branches, knowing and apprehensive about what is coming. That rumble in the distance is soon going to sweep over that peaceful, flowing river, and the lightning bolts will be crashing down, taking away the sound of a nearby shoal, making it impossible to sleep.  But then the storm passes and a welcome still morning takes its place.  My dreams are something like that, but what I hear isn’t thunder and lightning, it is another kind of distant roar, and it is coming slowly to destroy this whole nation.  It is something you can’t sleep through.


       And then, in a night as black as a politician’s soul, there is another bright, white sky, and the rumble count becomes 16.  The storm is moving fast.  The rain is picking up a little, and on the open deck to the north side of the covered porch where my coffee cup now sits empty, acorns whack down from the big white oak which towers over it.  It is the same every October in the past thirty years.  What a racket we have to contend with, and it is a wonder that two or three acorns no bigger than the end of my thumb can sound so loud and intrusive, falling onto a board floor.  That oak tree sits next to it, at least 200 years old.  Should a coming storm ever shatter its giant base; the limbs much bigger than my leg will be lying across my bed.  But for now it stands just like it has since before the civil war, showering my roof with acorns in the fall, sounding like someone is throwing rocks.


       In the darkness below my perch there are about 25 huge trees made up of about ten or eleven species.  Hickories and walnuts are falling now too, and it is good to know we are going to have a good winter mast crop.  In January, those acorns, way down into the deep woods, will be eaten up, by most ever kind of bird and mammal that roams lightnin’ ridge. Sometimes, in the dream that wakes me up, I envision a time when there isn’t plenty for everyone, when inevitably, the earth revolts against too many and too much.  Once in Arkansas I saw a huge migration of squirrels across Bull Shoals Lake and I remember there were thousands of them moving, in search of a better place.  Then days later there were hundreds of dead squirrels in the lake.  Made me think of the plagues of locusts in the Bible.  There were no acorns to be found in the wake of that migration. Among men there is a migration which will result in turmoil you do not see in nature.


       A chinquapin oak behind my place has already been hit by lightning, the first night I moved my family onto this high, wooded ridge.  But it survived it and is doing well, with a big scar down it’s trunk.  The night sky becomes white again, and now I see a streak of lightning, a bolt from high places which strikes the ground somewhere in the deep valley before me.  I count again.  The thunder comes in 6 seconds, no longer a gentle rumble but a loud and ominous roar from the heavens.  A couple of minutes later I hear another kind of roar, which is the sound of heavy rain hitting the earth perhaps a mile away.  It moves slowly, but as steady as daylight appearing through the timber to the east on a calmer day.  Soon it is becoming a roar only a few hundred yards to the west of me, and then in minutes there comes a subdued whisper of cool water against the warm dry earth, then the sound of bigger raindrops rushing through the foliage, coming to a crescendo against the roof of my porch.  There is that smell of fresh rain, a smell that makes you breathe deeply to pull in the scent.  Many things no writer can describe, and that scent is one of them.  I sit in the darkness hoping that the lightning will pass and the rain will continue. But as in my dreams, the worst of the storm is coming!


        The river in the valley below me has been low, but now the shoals will run swift again. My old johnboat sits in the trees below me. I will sit in it soon, paddling down that river looking for ducks or trying to tease a bass with some old lure, now the worse for wear after too many days on the river and many, many fish. I don’t know why I cling to the past so tightly, but old lures are better, to me. Then, as a bolt of lightning cracks down on something only few hundred yards away from my porch, I decide I will go inside. It’s funny, but you can smell a close lightning strike too.


        Finally, we have the rain we’ve been needing.  It makes me think of my Dad, who often said, as we took cover in some Piney River cave to wait out a storm… “It rains on the just and the unjust… and they just ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.”  Then he would light his pipe, lean back against the dry rock wall and ask if I had pulled the boat up high enough on the gravel bar, JUST in case the river started rising.  I always wondered if I had… if I had done a good enough job and was what Dad wanted me to be. From the shelter of the cave I would peer into the deluge, worried about whether the storm would pass on or stay. But always, the rain and thunder would recede and we would go on down the river as foliage dripped and the clouds began to break open.


       Now when I wake up early, before a storm comes I might wish I could go back to sleep and be comforted by the coming smell of fresh rain, the gentle rumble of distant thunder and the lightning flashing, still far, far away and feel as safe as I did in those caves with my dad. But in the dreams that awaken me in a panic, sometimes I see huge bolts of fire, and hear thunder as loud as explosions in our cities that are felt all over the world. I see strong trees splintered in awful winds, and rivers flooded by great torrents never seen before.  And I can smell burnt earth. 


       But then the daylight comes and I know that what is beyond that distant horizon is not here in the Ozarks. We should all be glad of that, being born and raised in this part of the country instead of those tormented cities where the war is on the way, if not there already, like a giant unstoppable storm. It will reach the Ozarks too, someday, but not soon I hope.

On Lightnin' Ridge, roses still bloom, birds still sing and my Labrador chases squirrels. It reminds me then, of something my Dad also said often, as we floated down the river. “This is a day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad about it.” And whether there is a storm here at dawn on Lightnin’ Ridge or the sun bathes the forest brightly as it climbs high in a blue sky, I try to remember that!

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