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The aging, lichen covered cherry tree defined my Kentucky property. It formed a boundary between lawn and hay field. It provided a shady sanctuary on hot summer days. It was a haven for birds, bees and butterflies. And since the day it fell, during the ice storm of January 2009, the huge old tree has defined my days.
I have never experienced an event as devastating as "The Ice Storm". Neither the cherry tree nor I went down easily. It took two cold, icy days of steady torrential rain, followed by ice, snow and wind to fell the tree, and an additional week to make me realize how vulnerable I was at the place I call my haven on Wards Branch Road in Boyle County. I'm sure Kentuckians statewide came to similar realizations.
As I sat at my desk looking out the window that late afternoon, Jan. 27 2009, silently and in slow motion, half of the great tree fell.
That evening I saw bright flashes of light in the sky the moment I lost electricity. Night brought bitter cold and darkness to the continuing storm. Most of the telephone poles between my home and Route 68 had snapped and overnight the second half of my cherry tree was downed. The huge hulk, which was my tree, lay like a slain dinosaur across my lawn in the grey, icy, foggy gloom of dawn.
As the days progressed, the eerie, light-less, ice-covered silence persisted. The only sound was that of snapping, cracking, twisting limbs and trees falling all over my property and in the surrounding knobs. None had the impact on my psyche or my land as did the old cherry tree. Days passed. The cold persisted. Every tree, every branch, every blade of grass was covered with an inch of ice. The roads were impassable. Power lines were down and dangling from broken poles. I saw no light, no car, and no human being.
Slowly, slowly I realized the storm was over and the healing had begun. The bird feeder that had hung on the cherry tree had landed upright beneath an arch of the tree's giant trunk. I crawled under the fallen tree and filled the feeder. Birds ate hungrily of the seeds. Three pair of blue birds huddled under the eaves of my garden shed each evening. I admired their tenacity and decided if they could survive the ice, so could I.
A friend brought me useable water. A neighbor offered to bring me more firewood should I need it. It was four days before Wards Branch Road was passable and two weeks before power was restored. I will not forget my first outing to Wal-Mart to find shelves empty. There was no kerosene or lamp oil, no generators, no candles, and no batteries. Everything I normally take for granted was gone... a warm home, electricity, viable water. I left Kentucky. A blue bird perched high atop a broken tree in the early morning sunshine as I drove away. I held that image. An image of hope and endurance. I will never forget seeing caravans of power trucks driving into the state as I was leaving. Heroes, I thought. Those men are heroes. It was two months before I returned to my Kentucky land and the great, fallen tree.
Through the rest of 2009, my land and I continued the gradual healing. A neighbor cut up the cherry tree and over the month of April I burned the smaller limbs, gave some of the wood to a craftsman and stacked some for firewood. The tree will live on in the cherry wood bowls and benches that will be made of it. I was again able to mow the lawn after clearing bushels of twigs. The hay fields grew. The hay was cut and baled. Blue birds nested and raised their young.
Most of the scars from the storm were not noticeable under the thick foliage of summer. I had more trees trimmed in the fall. Not until winter were the damaged tree limbs, which had twisted, snapped and broken again a visible reminder of what had been. There is more work to be done to clean up the land. Yet, I know now that time and effort will take care of it. I've now read that churches were giving out warm meals, and the National Guard was not far from my place handing out generators to critical sites such as nursing homes.
I know now that I can survive and that nature takes its course to live and to thrive. I know now what I need to be better off should another storm hit central Kentucky: a generator, radio, candles, matches, wood for my woodstove, water, easily prepared food and something to cook it on. I know that help comes, that ice melts, that power is restored.
Only the stump of the cherry tree remains now in my lawn. I'll put a bird feeder on it, perhaps plant some flowers around it as a reminder of what was and of what can be... a reminder of survival and healing. It is a reminder of the hard work and endurance of Kentuckians. A reminder that heroes come in many guises: neighbors, friends and men who work for power companies.