By Thomas Lerczak
Out for a drive, my wife Julie and I traveled across the open, rolling Illinois countryside under turbulent December skies that seemed almost like a painting by one of the great masters: high billowy mountains of white and gray, constantly changing shape, reflecting the late afternoon sunlight in deep yellows, nearly orange in places, and mostly heavy with water vapor, and then not. Every once in a while we could see small funnels forming at the base of the clouds trying to touch the ground. But at perhaps ten miles away, the funnels were more a show of raw physics than cause for alarm…at least for us.
After another twenty miles, we still paced the storm as it moved northward; and when we reached our rural home, it was directly to the west, about seven miles away over the Illinois River valley. I confidently expected that what was now easily recognizable as a large tornado system would not turn abruptly eastward toward our home, but would continue on its northeastern track until it eventually dissipated. So I ran to the house for a camera to make a video recording. And just to be safe, I yelled to Julie that she might get ready to run for the basement. From my vantage point, it seemed as if the quarter-mile-wide tornado rotated rather slowly, but I knew that its winds probably exceeded 100 miles per hour and were undoubtedly causing severe damage, maybe even deaths. I somberly watched, in awe of the storm’s power, and was frustrated at the complete inability of anyone to do a thing to stop it or even to minimize its destruction.
As it happened, the funnel cloud continued its northeastern track, leaving us quite alone. I fought off feeling even slightly guilty at remaining unscathed compared to others; chance made that determination, not I. With early retirement at sixty only a few months before, walking away from a good career and an extensive work-related social network, my life had already changed more than enough to suit me for quite a while. It goes without saying that a tornado was an upheaval I could do without. I was thriving in this new steady, contemplative life with my wife, even as I knew it would be folly not to expect at least a few unavoidable challenges in the years ahead. The tornado may have appeared as a harbinger, but my scientific mind quickly rejected that notion. Unless the wind is threatening, I enjoy being in it for a time, as a way to connect with a wild, unharnessed quality of nature and to trigger recollections that might otherwise, over time, become obscure. A natural phenomenon to rely upon in our increasingly uncertain world; for no matter what might happen, there will be wind, somewhere at some point.
Days later, as another weather front charged across the land, the tornado was still a powerful memory; I looked to the west, and in my mind’s eye, kept imagining that tornado’s almost living, lightning-filled dark clouds slowly grinding across the land. Nearly mesmerized with that image, I had to tear myself away to continue following the home trails through the timber and dormant prairie, trying to discern—against high winds, tossing leaves, and twisting trees—faint sounds of small birds that I knew must be there somewhere. But the wind once again dominated everything. So I followed the trail to the property boundary to have a look at the harvested farm fields and skies to the north, hoping for a few raptor sightings. The day before, a northern harrier hunted those very fields. I leaned against a medium-sized Siberian elm, sipped my cooling lukewarm coffee, and stayed alert to any movements across my field of view. Immediately, I noticed the tree swaying slightly with the wind. It wasn’t much, but with each gust, the tree flexed in one direction just so far and then back. And as I relaxed, my entire body moved in sync with the tree; in effect, directly linked to every gust.
Moving with the wind, my thoughts harkened back to the summer of 1990, to a Mississippi River oxbow lake in southwestern Illinois. It was a similarly windy day, and I was hiking some trails, again looking for whatever birds happened to be around. The trails were on what was long ago a river island. At the tip of the former island, a large tree leaned out over the roiling waters and white-capped waves, which crashed against the shoreline. From all appearances, the tree seemed solidly anchored to the old river bank. And so what else was there for me to do but climb onto its nearly horizontal trunk, outward and above the water. Realistically, there was nothing that I would see perched out on the tree that I could not also see from the solid ground. But this tree simply beckoned to be climbed.
It was only when I finally became settled down on the tree trunk—one leg over each side, like riding a horse—that I noticed its swaying in the strong winds, the entire massive trunk moving up and down like a ship’s prow in heavy seas. The thought briefly crossed my mind that if the tree fell into the lake while I was on it, the situation would not be good. But what a ride it was! I stayed on the tree for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, watching gulls soaring effortlessly in their natural element, responding perfectly to every twist and turn the air could deliver, just as the tree I sat upon moved to those same forces. Later, when I stood on solid ground again, I could imagine what sailors must experience after a long sea journey, how lack of the ground gently rolling to and fro might seem strangely awkward.
I have climbed only one or two trees since that time, not wishing to tempt fate, I guess; or maybe climbing trees is not really something a grown man is supposed to do. But looking back, I now see that I may have learned something from that experience: how rolling with the flow is the easier way through life. For even the Golden Gate Bridge must flex in the winds, in exactly the same way as a massive sequoia in the Sierra Nevada Mountains or a blade of grass in the prairie at home. And yet, all stand firm at the same time.
Later in the year, as I stepped from the back porch in the early morning, the first item I took notice of was the wind, already more than a light breeze. The second item was a bald eagle flying crosswise against the wind just over the swaying treetops, directly above my home, and away. That seemed like a good sign for the rest of the day.
My usual plan after reaching the farthest point on the home trail is to sit for a while, merely to watch and listen. Something interesting usually happens if I wait long enough. But on this day, except for the wind, all was calm and quiet. So I watched the trees bending and twisting in the constant high, gusting winds. The dimly lit gray cloud cover was moving over the area at a steady clip, making way for clearing skies expected over the next few hours. And then the surroundings took hold of my thoughts once again and pulled me backward in time to the middle 1980s.
I had just finished setting up camp at Bear Head Lake State Park in northeastern Minnesota after riding over two hundred miles on a motorcycle; I was tired and beaten up from the constant noise of the engine, wind, and essentially staying frozen in one position for the entire trip. I needed rest. Why did I travel this way? And so, I leaned against one of the biggest trees at the camp site, looked toward the canopy and sky, and listened. The wind, though fierce and foreboding of bad weather, was a natural sound that I craved; it was part of the reason for my trip, so weary was I of suburban Chicago’s big city chaos and what seemed to be the continuous noise of automobiles, trucks, jet aircraft, trains, and lawn care equipment. The uncorrupted sound of wind blowing through the boreal forest was classical music.
My thoughts on the home trails also drifted to an early autumn day at the Indiana Dunes along Lake Michigan. Gale force winds blew from the north unimpeded across three hundred miles of open water, creating ocean-like swells that crashed onto the shores like a mountainside avalanche. Never had I met the power of natural forces in such stark, unfiltered terms. I ventured into the water, but only to my waist, as surely there were strong rip currents (a fast-moving stream of water traveling outward from shore) capable of quickly carrying a body against its will beyond the point of no return. And yet, the air was full of birds that seemed at home in the winds as I would be in a comfortable living room recliner. Ring-billed gulls soared into the wind with wings held back, always in total command; even ducks zoomed through the winds in every direction, knowing exactly what they were doing. It was difficult to suppress the thought that these birds were having the time of their lives.
Those are good memories of the wind for the start of a new day, a positive pathway which began as I focused my attention skyward. Julie occasionally asks, “What do you do out there for so long?” So far I have not answered, “Listening to the wind.” But I’m pretty sure she would understand, even though she might present me with a strange look.
Though we loved our country home near the Illinois River valley, with its trails and wildlife, for several years we had talked about moving to a university town with more medical care facilities and other services, stores, and diverse cultural opportunities. So when the right opportunity became obvious, just about a year following the tornado, we signed a contract on a house within the confines of the small western Illinois town of Macomb. Right up until the signing, it did not seem as if a move could actually happen, that our lives could be upended so soon after retiring. But the contract made it real, forcing us to transform words into action. So like a whirlwind, we began to tear apart our home, deciding on every item, no matter how small, to keep or discard. Then in a few weeks, the tumult ceased, our move completed.
The new neighborhood, with sidewalks and streetlights, is domesticated and manicured. Though memories of our former rural home imperceptibly fade a bit more with each passing day, I will never let those years in the country be forgotten, nor will I be trapped by nostalgia into looking back too frequently. Time’s arrow points forward, like a river’s flow.
In these new surroundings, I often wander to a nearby creek corridor, with a thin band of untrimmed riparian timber. The creek I appreciate most of all, especially after a heavy rain, when its waters run high and mighty, reminding me that even here in town, nature is never truly under anyone’s control, no matter what some may think. On my daily walks or bike rides, I still search for birds, but I especially listen for the wind and take notice of the air freely moving against my face, as chance dictates, before it travels through the rest of town and over the rolling landscape of our newly adopted county.
Defiantly I face into the wind, for doing so is confronting nature as well as the next moment, carrying along whatever that may entail: sometimes a storm, other times barely a rustle; the expected and unanticipated; the infinity of time and nothing.
Copyright Lerczak 2023