The bough was thick and wet, and his mouth a tense rictus as he trembled under its weight. But my ten-year-old steadied his hockey-stud legs and carted it off the driveway, then another 30 yards down the street. It landed with a thud in the first space he found along a growing curbside forest.
Hurricane Sandy had visited her wrath on our comfortable New Jersey town the night before, her sheets of rain a blinding afterthought in the teeth of sustained winds that gusted near a hundred miles per hour — blasts that seemed to go on forever. They had already been fierce in the late afternoon, worse than anything we’re used to in these parts, when someone hopefully said that maybe we’d dodged a bullet. Sandy, the local newscast told us, was picking up speed, approaching landfall ahead of schedule. She might outrun the full moon and the high tide. She might choose not to be the proverbial “perfect storm” — maybe lash us without wounding us.
Pollyanna’s pipe dream. No, the worst had not even begun. It waited for the black, unforgiving night. In its wake, the devastation here is epic.
Ruinous weather is not unknown to the Garden State. The shore takes a battering of sorts once or twice a year, the tail tropical-storm end of a hurricane that already spent itself in Florida or the Carolinas. Last year was peculiarly bad. First, in late summer, Hurricane Irene’s bounce up the East Coast smacked Little Egg Harbor before careening up into Brooklyn. The brunt, however, was felt upstate. The Hudson, the Passaic, and nine other rivers — saturated by an unusually rain-soaked summer — gushed over. Seven people died, homes and businesses were badly damaged, and well over a million people lost power — just a few hours for most, but several days for some.
Then came a freakish Halloween snowstorm, an arboreal nightmare as the still bursting autumn golds, oranges, and clarets sponged up a blizzard whose weight they could not bear. Shots rang out from above, eerily — as if hunting season had been declared in these residential hills that teem with basketball hoops, goal posts, and yelping kids. These were not sudden bursts of fire, though; they were the snapping of mighty branches, sometimes, of entire trees. In a matter of seconds after the crack would come the menacing crash, usually harmlessly against the ground, but sometimes across a power line or the stray unlucky car.
At the time, it seemed as rough as it gets in our neck of these woods. Here in north-central Jersey, we are inland. We’re close enough to the City to get to a matinee in 45 minutes (or two hours . . . tunnel permitting), yet we’re up in the hills, where floods and most other shattering weather catastrophes are not in our stars. Those are tragedies that happen to other people — people who evoke our sympathy, even our charity, but who may as well be in Mozambique. People whose travails we watch without really experiencing.
Well, now we’re experiencing. What makes the hills of central Jersey gorgeous is their greenery — towered over by oaks of every variety (the red oak, quercus borealis maxima, is our state tree), along with maples, elms, poplars, cedars, and pines that run the gamut of species, shape, and size. The proud boast of our family’s street is — or was — a long line of perfectly shaped pears, magical trees that go snow white to announce the arrival of spring before the early summer sun winks and turns them emerald. Stunning . . . but not built for the hurricane belt that has suddenly annexed us.