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Prime Time | Cleaning up: Reflections on the July 2 storm

Rain pounded the windows. The wind bent huge oaks, pine and birch horizontal. The air cracked and popped, trees snapped and tumbled, and the lights went out.

For several minutes we waited, listened and watched. I texted my daughter: "We're having a crazy, nasty storm here. A big tree just fell by the garage - make that two trees in the yard. More trees! Can't count them all. Can't see through the rain."

Like others in the area, my husband and I were in the midst of the greatest storm we'd ever experienced.

Lightning cracked and thunder boomed. The wind slapped the tall trees, snapping several like Popsicle sticks. The wind completely uprooted our largest oaks. They fell and splintered, swiping power lines and other trees.

When the rain and wind subsided, a neighborhood chorus of chain saws replaced the hammering of the storm. We walked about carefully in the dim light. A large oak had fallen alongside the attached garage, landing inches from the building, right where our daughter's car had been parked earlier in the day.

We walked up the driveway, counting the downed trees, snipped off cleanly about 20 feet up. I counted 11 before I came upon downed electrical wires, now curled, twisted and stretched across our driveway like slender gray snakes. In one place, individual strands in the wire had separated and frayed like pulled-apart shoestring licorice. We weren't about to test their liveliness.

I turned back and walked through the renters' yard where a fallen birch blocked the driveway. Our uprooted oaks did an even more complete job farther down, but in the tangle of fallen trees, electrical wires, branches and leaves, somehow we'd managed to sustain no damage to buildings or vehicles.

In the morning, we would begin the enormous task of cleaning up. Back in the house, with my battery-powered clip light, I finished reading Wendell Affield's book "Muddy Jungle Rivers." In the epilogue, Wendell reflected on the capriciousness of war. Why was he spared when his boat should have been destroyed? Why did he return home whole from Vietnam while so many returned without limbs?

In my dreams, the images of Wendell's book interwove with the images of the storm. I rose at 6 a.m. and ventured into the sunny morning with my camera. Signs of last night's storm were everywhere: the jagged maples now topped by the storm, the decapitated pines in the yard, ragged branches everywhere.

How had it happened that so many trees had split and fallen without causing any damage? I thought about a news update I'd read earlier about the fires in Colorado. Some people had returned to their homes to find mail, undisturbed, in their mailboxes or nothing more than ash on their driveways while others in the same neighborhood had returned to find nothing left. Why had some sustained so much damage while others had none?

With so much destruction, one can only begin the clean-up. First, Gary cut the trees down; then he cut them up. (Sounds strange.) Some were so huge that we needed the Bobcat to move them. I watched as the little machine flexed its hydraulic muscles and, with its snaggle-toothed, grapple-hook mouth, chomped up gigantic segments of oaks, two at a time - about 16 inches in diameter and at least 10 feet long. It snatched them up, swiveled, and spit them into a pile on the edge of what was left of our woods.

Farther down the driveway, I caught the scent of pine, the same sensuous aroma that had enticed me to northern Minnesota so many years ago. The first time I had experienced it, I had no idea that the smell is only this intense when the sap has been exposed or when the tree has been cut -- or, in this case, snapped.

I found the tops of several red and white pines, their feathery needles still green and odoriferous. It saddened me to lose them. I moved the manageable ones off the road and lay them to rest in the ditch, their scent an aromatic swan song.

For the next several days, we continued to clean up after the storm. The physical exertion in the hot sun felt good somehow, knowing that we were making progress. Although saddened by the loss of some of the largest trees on our property and the shade they provided, the clean-up was eased by the gratefulness of any lack of physical structure damage. We were without electricity for a good part of four days - an inconvenience, not a tragedy.

It will take many more days to complete the clean-up, and decades to replace the trees that were lost, but my mind shifts to other clean-ups. How terrible must it be to clean through the charred remains of a home? More terrible still, where does one begin to clean up after a war? Physically. Mentally.

The aches I felt at the end of each day were only minor physical reminders of how minimal our experience with the storm was compared to what it could have been.