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Luskin: After Irene

11/04/11 7:55AM By Deborah Luskin
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(Host) Tropical Storm Irene has affected the way commentator Deborah Luskin regards the power of water to change the landscape – and the power of humans to adapt to change.

(Luskin) One soggy month and a day after Irene washed through Vermont, I took off for the desert southwest on a long-planned hiking trip in Bryce and Zion National Parks.

We met a lot of other tourists, both American and foreign. Many of them knew about Vermont’s famous foliage or sweet maple syrup; but everyone knew about Irene.

I didn’t really think I’d been affected by the storm.

We lost some trees and soil where our land meets the river, and we had some gravel spill onto our lawn; but this was nothing compared to our eighty-year old neighbors, who lost their home.

I know I viewed the desert landscape through the lens of Irene and the destructive power of water. One day, we hiked The Narrows – a trail that follows the Virgin River through a slot canyon in Zion. Most of the hike is in the river, and the outfitter where we rented equipment required us to watch a video, so we’d know the warning signs of a flash flood and what to do if we saw them.

The video of swiftly rising water changing from crystal clear to sludgy mud was all too familiar. Even though the danger of a flash flood was rated “Low” the day we waded upstream, I found myself always assessing the location of high ground where I’d retreat if I saw so much as a twig floating by. We walked in the water between forty-foot high rock walls with only a narrow crack of sky above us. This was just the sort of place that would be fatal if the water rose quickly. I enjoyed the hike and the beauty, but I was anxious. Irene never stopped whispering in my ear.

I don’t know if it was our wet spring and summer, the tropical flood, or simply the stark beauty, but I loved the desert landscape.

In order to make sense of its strangeness, though, I found myself making lists of what I saw. I stuffed my notebook with words like lithification, manzanita, and mahonia, to name just three.

Back home, restored bridges and roads allowed me to resume my professional speaking engagements around Vermont. And I saw evidence of Irene everywhere: with the leaves fallen, I had clear views of tumbled rocks mounded up where streams had carved new routes.

At Evening Song Farm just east of Rutland, once fertile soil is now a field of stones and silt; nevertheless, the young farmers are still in business, planting on borrowed land.

In my village, my displaced neighbors published a letter thanking those who have helped them salvage the ruins of their home. Among those on the list are other neighbors who also sustained significant loss due to Irene.

The large landscapes I saw in Utah dwarfed my human imagination, but the spirit of the humans who are picking up the pieces of their post-Irene lives have inspired me with unabashed awe.
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