Sunday, August 10, 2008

The ice storm, revisited

Last winter was the tenth year anniversary of the "ice storm" here in Maine (and Quebec). You may not have heard of it. It was hardly on the national news, which I've never quite understood, though the amazing fact that less than a dozen people died during this event may have rendered it un-newsworthy.

It's a lovely summer day here in Maine, yet I am thinking about the winter. I, like many, have been thinking about the winter ever since the price of gas skyrocketed. People may feel some relief now that prices have dropped somewhat. I know I do. I also know that it's absurd to feel relief that prices have dropped below four dollars a gallon. When I think of the dual financial realities of paying my hyper-escalated property tax and whatever it will take to heat my home this winter, I feel vaguely ill. I have decided to take the path of ignoring this pending emergency and presuming everything will be fine, somehow.

What does this have to do with the ice storm of '98? Quite a bit. One fantasy that I play with when I'm feeling hard pressed to envision just how I will pay my taxes, put gas in my car, or heat my house, is that the financial and governmental infrastructure will fall apart. That's right: I fantasize that I will no longer pay my taxes or my mortgage, and lucky me, I'll have a bit of land to grow food, perhaps keep chickens or small livestock and cut firewood on. I have a well, and if electricity stops working, I will have no problem building and using an outhouse.

Still, you may be wondering what this has to do with the ice storm, or why I'm wishing for this post-apocalyptic dystopia.

When the ice storm hit in '98, it was the dead of winter, but unlike the typical Maine winter weather, it had been raining. It rained for an entire week without let-up. This wasn't the first winter Maine had seen rain instead of snow. Even the most diehard Rush Limbaugh fans up here believed global warming was indeed happening, as they reported on the snowy winters of their childhood that were no longer a given. The Maine winters are long and dark and without snow they are harder to endure. Six months of dim light and cold are bad enough, but the snow helps. One can get outside to snowshoe, sleighride or ski. The whiteness of the snow makes it feel brighter. The snow also help insulate ones' house, and it covers gardens and crop fields, protecting them from the constant heaving of temperature changes. An "open winter" (one without a constant snow cover) is not a good winter. And we've had more open winters than not in the last 15 years or so.

It was nothing new when, back in '98, we had days and days of hard rain. But this time, things were different. Each day it got colder, but it kept on raining. The last two days before the rain stopped, the temperatures were in the 20's but still it rained. Everything was covered with ice. Sure, we'd seen this before, but this time is was thick. By the time it stopped raining, the ice was about six inches thick. I didn't know this, but I was living in one of the hardest hit areas.

The day it stopped raining, the electricity went off. This, too, was not unexpected, for the power stops around these parts fairly regularly. An ordinary heavy rain storm can cause an outage (and usually does). This time the power did not come on. The phone was dead, too, and it wasn't because we had a cordless phone which needed electricity. There was no phone service, period. In '98 there was no cell phone service in the area I lived in (and I'm not entirely sure if there is now, either).

The first night was terrifying. The temperatures plummeted to near zero and the trees started to fall. Huddling inside the little cabin, it sounded like there was gunfire outside. The trees seemed like they were exploding. They cracked with a huge bang and then came straight down. We were all lucky that it was a wind-less night, for if it hadn't been, a lot more houses and people would have been hurt. We started to understand just how the trees were falling and saw we were relatively safe. I didn't understand the mechanics of it, but the trees were not falling hard. One did land on the roof on the house, but it did no damage (and later, we would see that this was indeed the case most everywhere).

That morning, we awoke to a world that looked devastated, as it indeed was. It appeared that a good percentage of trees had fallen through the night. It was truly beautiful, I must admit, but even though we had no contact with the outer world, we knew that something momentous had happened.

By day three, we still had neither power nor phone service. The postal service, which I'd never truly appreciated for its actually living up to the promise of delivering no matter the weather, well, it wasn't delivering (or picking up). We realized that everything had stopped. The road I lived on was barricaded with fallen trees, power lines and telephone poles. I couldn't get to work. I couldn't call anyone. We had no battery powered radio, so we didn't know what was going on exactly. What we did know is that we had to survive.

The lifestyle that I lived at that point turned out to serve well in this emergency. We heated the cabin with wood and so we had no worries about keeping warm. The electricity was out, but that hardly mattered. The stove was electric, but since we had no water pump, we were melting ice on the woodstove to wash with. We also cooked on it. We had no canned goods stockpile, for the house was small (and not being a survivalist, I wouldn't have stockpiled anyway). We did have root vegetables in the small cellar and an entire deer, cut up and ready to cook, in the freezer. Of course, the freezer wasn't working, but it was so full that its contents were staying frozen. And lastly, the outhouse that I cursed on a daily basis, well, I was quite thankful that it was there. In this emergency, a normal bathroom was rendered useless.

We were all set. The days were simple and devoted to one thing: just living. There was a schedule, unspoken and unset, but remarkably easy to understand. Wake up with the sun. Stoke the woodfire. Get ice and melt it on the woodstove. Make oatmeal on the stove. Start preparing food for the one major meal of the day by cutting up vegetables and dethawing the venison. Continue chipping ice off the cars. Bring wood in.

I realized that I liked this life. No bills came in and no bills went out. No bills were paid, obviously. No one could call to hassle us for not paying bills. In essence, with one crazy storm, we were knocked back into early 19th century living. However, we had no horse and so, the big order of business was getting the roads cleared (and the cars de-iced).

It appeared that noone was coming to help clear the roads. Somewhere around day three all the men with chainsaws on the road started clearing the mess. It was interesting how well these men worked together, for these were people who had major grudges against each other. The squabbles over teenage kids driving too fast at night or just why so-and-so had been in jail were put aside.

The only thing I needed when the road was cleared were candles and information. How were my friends who lived in other towns? Had many people died? The first day that I drove to the main road, I was shocked. It looked like an atomic bomb had been detonated. In every direction, all I could see were downed phone and power lines. Even by day five, in that part of Waldo county, power lines were laying in the middle of the main roads, unattended to. There were no moving vehicles in sight.

We lived like this for fifteen days. We had started driving a half an hour to Belfast, where power had been restored, to eat different food and shower at a friend's house. But part of me didn't want to return to the "real world". I loved that the TV and stereo were never on. I loved reading until dark and then going to sleep. I loved reading out loud as an activity. I loved the fact that just living was my job. Now, if I had thought this would go on for years, I may have thought differently, but I did ruminate about that possibility. I did possess skills that would be useful if things never returned to normal. I know how to grow flax and the old ways of processing it into something that can be spun into thread. I know how to spin and I know how to weave on old looms. I know how to raise sheep and process their wool for yarn. I can sew and knit. I know how to make butter.

I can't chop wood (to say my life, literally) but others can, and if it came to it, I could barter hand made clothes for wood.

I have been thinking about this stuff again because of the price of gas and because I am just finishing Kunstler's "The Long Emergency", in which he posits what will happen in the post-oil age. He imagines that places where people still know how to do things the old way will be able to manage to some degree. I don't know what to make of his apocalyptic vision. It rings true (though I'm not describing it well enough for you to judge). It's frightening, for sure. Our world will change, and change drastically.

When I think of a world pushed back into 19th century ways, the only thing I am scared of is that I will stay have to pay my mortgage and taxes. If I take that out of the equation, I think I will be perfectly fine, for some of my skills will suddenly have value where now they have none.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not sitting here wishing for the end of the world as we know it. For one thing, I want my internet connection!

But I must admit, I've had a fascination with post-apocalyptic ideas since I was a kid and a yearning for a lifestyle more akin to the Amish's than anything else for just as long. If it comes to that, well, I only pray that the mail service ends and no one will be demanding any money from me, for there will be none to be had.


Anonymous said...

I think about this sometimes and the few things I'll miss in this new world is the ability to listen to music on CDs and the internet. Oh, and I guess there will be no perfume, too:)

Julie H. Rose said...

I don't want to make it sound like too much fun, but, if we lose the ability (privilege?) of listening to CDs or other recorded music, perhaps more people will play their own music.

And as to perfume, there may actually be a real need for it, for hot showers and baths may become a luxury.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what would be worse in this situation - losing all the comforts we're used to or subjecting my loved ones to the kind of music I could/would play then:)