Hurricane Fran
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 10/2/1996

The arrival of Hurricane Fran, an emissary of the Mayan storm god Hurukan, has reshaped the banks of our rivers. Raging waters, estimated to be 20 feet above normal, have redesigned the canopy of trees that drape the Eno River. Many favorite umbrellas of ironwood, maple and river birch, where wafters once reclined to watch reflected sunlight dance on the underside leaves and limbs, now lay twisted, bruised and broken.

Hurukan, the ancient Mayan god from whom was born the god of maize, created the first fire by rubbing his sandals together. He is the sender of rain, storm, lightning and thunder and continues to remind us of our vulnerability to the forces of nature by launching the tropical storm that we have since named after him, the "hurricane.''

Just two days after the passing of Fran, I paddled downstream on the Eno from Cole Mill Road to West Point Park. Signs of severe disturbance were everywhere. Huge, uprooted oaks lined the shore. A muddy film covered the leaves of shrubs and trees far up on both banks. A doll baby stroller hung from a birch limb six feet over the water and a stranded tennis shoe lay in a nearby clump of debris.

A ghostly shaped dead tree that once stood on a hillside overlooking the river was now conspicuously absent. I had admired it for years, silhouetted in the glow of moonlight at night. It had withstood dozens of other storms but finally succumbed to Fran. It had witnessed the silvery faces of a thousand moonlight wafters, transfixed on it with reverence and wonder. Through the years, I had beamed countless meditative messages of love and concern off of that sentinel of the night. I felt I had lost a very dear friend.

My passage down river after the storm was quiet. One lone bullfrog belched out of season. I turned my head quickly to see it sitting on a limb in the midst of a pile of tangled, fallen tree trunks. Was I just imagining, or did the frog's voice convey a note of confusion? A kingfisher flew silently from branch to branch ahead of me, without its usual rattling call. Finally, I intruded upon a rendezvous of two great blue herons wading together on the river's edge. They quickly took to flight, each launching itself upward and flying in opposite directions.

One wonders where the animals go in a storm. The myriad of tiny minnows, tadpoles, freshwater shrimp, baby turtles, whirligig beetles and water striders. How could they possibly find refuge in a roaring river that was casting huge logs on the crests of its waves? And the birds? Are low shrubs and hollow logs sufficient refuge for their survival? Or does a storm of this magnitude produce myriad of faunal fatalities with no tombstones to mark them?

When I was a small child, the death of a pet animal always inspired the big question in my mind that I then posed to my parents: "Do animals go to heaven when they die?'' Paddling the Eno after Hurricane Fran certainly brought issues of life and death to mind once again. There is no question that the long-term projection for the river is one of renewal and health. But the twisted trunks of once beautiful trees, piled up and seemingly discarded on the banks, are not a pretty sight. Perhaps the spirit Hurukan took his own sacrifices . . .

I remind myself that the culling of weaker individuals is part of nature's way of ensuring that the seeds of the strongest and healthiest trees will continue to be produced. The river bank forest will grow back. The broken vegetation will slowly rot, becoming hollow homes for many forms of wildlife. Bobcats, raccoons, opossum, owls, woodpeckers, wood ducks and warblers all nest in tree cavities. And once a tree falls to the ground and begins to return to soil, it becomes a home for snakes, salamanders and countless insects and worms. The death of one form of life becomes the basis of renewal for another. Life breeds life in a wonderfully connected way.  "Talk of heaven! Ye disgrace the earth,'' exclaimed Henry Thoreau.

Although clear to the Mayans, the kind of atmospheric disturbance that sparks an individual hurricane is not always clear to modern science. But the heat from warm, late summer tropical seas becomes the hurricane's fuel. The force produced from the earth's rotation, known as the Coriolis Force, can keep in motion a well managed, powerful weather system that can barrel out of tropical waters and come crashing upon us here in the Carolina Piedmont. But there is a healthy, purifying and regenerative element to this ancient and enduring phenomenon. The Eno needs to flood occasionally. It is part of the long-term, self-management plan for the river and all its interdependent creatures.

On the evening after the storm passed, I noticed that the sky was the most clear and beautiful that I had ever witnessed it in late summer. Jupiter rose and commanded a legion of dazzling lights that canopied the sky once again. Late into the night, a waning crescent moon appeared and hung like a sparkling ornament in the rarefied night air. Finally, at dawn, Venus welcomed the new day with her comforting radiance. With all the destruction and inconvenience that Fran brought to our community, life is also cleansed and renewed. We, as humans, are reminded that we are not always in control. Wild natural forces are still alive and recreating. So we rebuild as well and the Eno is invigorated once again ...
Photo by NOAA National Weather Service: Hurricane Fran approaching the Carolina coast on September 4, 1996