Thursday, February 06, 2014

After the Ice Storm

Most people have an argument with the weather. It should be more this and less that. The audacity of water in whatever form to precipitate upon us precipitates in turn as much complaint as taxes and the deluge of leaves in fall. My argument is instead with houses, which go into a feint the moment an ice storm comes along, but I have to admit,

freezing rain is a lousy tree trimmer. There are no two ways about it. This is shoddy work. I'm no expert, but you don't trim a town's trees by applying weight to every branch in town to cull the weak from the strong, and just let it all fall helter skelter. I did appreciate, though, that the branch that fell on our car was dropped in such a way as to do no visible damage. There are many stories like this after a storm, of branches or whole trees falling in an uncanny way as to do no damage.

The upshot for our neighborhood was an unexpectedly modest two hours without power, and an unusually peaceful Harrison Street. Despite the major repair job underway at the intersection of Harrison and Hamilton Ave, life seemed normal enough by evening to set out by foot across town for a talk on "Legendary Locals of Princeton" at the Historic Society of Princeton's annual meeting. The premise of the walk was that most any tree branch that was going to fall had already fallen. The bartender at the Nassau Club asked how my trip there in a car had gone. He was surprised to hear I had walked. I had worn my dressiest pair of hiking boots, and actually found it very pleasant to walk the length of Nassau Street when there were so few cars out. I ran into friends I hadn't seen in years, and got to appreciate the (mostly) well-cleared sidewalks and the fresh wintry air. None of this seemed worth telling the bartender, who was probably expecting some cathartic complaints about parking.

Our Mayor Lempert introduced the speaker, using the opportunity to inform us that Princeton got hit harder by the storm than most other NJ towns. Winds were in store overnight, and another storm Sunday. In an example of community collaboration, one of the soccer associations was supplying lights for the street repair crews. The speaker and author, Richard D. Smith, credited the Lenni Lenape's trails as much as the university in positioning Princeton to become a "legendary locale". Indian trails tended to run along ridges, which in this case later grew into Nassau Street and the Lincoln Highway. The Lenape village was apparently down along the Stonybrook in that rich bottomland near where the society's Updike Farm and future home base is located. In a couple years, they plan to complete the move from the university-owned Bainbridge House out to the farmstead, which they envision as becoming a Princeton Historical Center with enough room to put Einstein's furniture on display.

The legendary locals turned out to be a refreshing mix, with the standard greats like Einstein, Robeson, and Woodrow Wilson mingling with notable merchants, Olive McKee (John McPhee's high school english teacher), and a couple of the guys whose names I didn't catch, who over the years have been highly visible riding their electric carts around town.

It's the guys chugging around town on electric vehicles that I take my inspiration from, in that I see their mode of transportation as being part of the solution to the tendency of houses to feint. One of the historical society's staff had lost power at 8am, prompting her family to move in with friends for the duration. This shouldn't need to happen, and there needs to be a better option than investing in a generator that will rarely be used.

When I was college aged, my argument with houses was that they were too square, too boxey. Given that in the intervening years they have steadfastly refused to lose their boxiness, I have shifted my concern to how they get energy. Houses essentially make no sense whether they're getting energy or not. When the grid is up, it feeds houses the kind of energy that is destabilizing the climate. When the grid is down, houses are helpless to feed themselves. Either the future or the present suffers. What a lousy choice we're given. When the power goes out in our house, I want to have a low-energy mode it can go into, in which the frig, furnace and internet continue functioning, fed by dual purpose batteries that can drive the electric car day to day and the house during power outages. At those times, the house would automatically shut itself off from the grid, so that none of the electricity would head out to the street where lines are being repaired. A few solar panels would offer some energy to recharge the batteries or to replace some of the grid energy. My research staff--that would be a neighbor and myself--are exploring these sorts of plug and play options.

Walking home from the talk, I saw a bicyclist pedaling up the hill on Linden Lane. On the night following a freezing rain, few, including me, would think to ride their bikes, yet there he was, well dressed, getting where he needed to go, apparently unaware that this wintry world is a terribly harsh and dangerous place. When I was a kid, I'd ride my bike to school in the snow, impressed by the imprint my bicycle tires made in the snow and mud. No need for big machines. Tread was my power. One winter, a freezing rain coated the whole landscape with ice. It was the one and only time I was able to skate to school. That was the best, especially skating downhill.

I arrived home to find the dog needed a walk, and so we headed out while the workmen continued their work down the street. The latest form of precipitation was not coming from the sky, but instead took the form of ice cubes that a feint breeze was causing to fall in earnest from the ice-coated trees. They made shimmering sounds on the pavement when a tree released many shards at a time, but felt cold and mischievous when one fell down the back of my neck. Leo was not going to settle for a perfunctory walk. When I headed left to circle around the block, he stayed behind at the curb, resolute, looking hard at me like a major league pitcher shaking off a signal from the catcher. Why settle for a fastball when he was game for a slider all the way down Clearview. Not that he was going to find much of interest. Snow in a dog's world must be like giving an Etch a Sketch a good shake. All past communications are erased. He was undeterred, however, and immediately set about beginning anew what seems like a meaningful correspondence with the neighborhood canine penpals.

The new layer of ice fragments landing on the snow glistened in the street light. If it were all broken crystal, it would be a great tragedy. But nature creates crystalline beauty, then dismantles it with complete nonchalance, ever restless to make something new, sure of her bottomless talent to combine and recombine, never making anything quite the same way twice.

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