Shedding Circumstance

There’s nothing particularly charming about flood waters. Muddy, debris-filled and insistent, they rage indiscriminately, sparing nothing in their path.

Nonetheless, once waters recede, tokens of their presence can be surprisingly delicate. Unbroken grasses bend beneath invisible flows; trees wear faint watermarks with pride.

Among the jumbled plants, a few leaves dangle. Their thin, crisp coating of sand has begun flaking away; their striated surface recalls a season of growth.

Given over to death, they echo life: stirring before the wind, they murmur and sigh, casting off remnants of a strange and fearsome time.


Comments always are welcome.

60 thoughts on “Shedding Circumstance

  1. It is difficult up here in relatively quiet New England to grasp the severity of the natural disasters that occur in other locations. But when we take the human response and emotion from the equation we can appreciate that nature is unto nature. We are more fragile than the ecosystem and while our lives seem overwhelmed by these events, nature adapts and carries on.
    Your image of these dried and mud-caked leaves seem a bit bat-like to my imagination. While they represent the hurricane and its aftermath, one can still see beauty in the dried flaking mud and the twisting of the leaves.

    1. Now that you mention the bats, I can see them. I first saw a line of laundry, and then a line of chrysalises.

      The mud coating them has a high proportion of sand in the mix, and I was surprised both by how well it held on, and by how fragile it was. If you touched an edge of the coating that was separating from the leaf, it would simply fall apart. Now, all of this is only a memory. We’ve had good rain since the flood, and dead or alive, the plants along this pathway are clean, and a new flush of growth is beginning.

      1. All those visions make this an even more interesting shot, Linda.

        Yup, nature presents and nature withdraws the various phenomena that we so find interesting. I am sure the surviving plants are quite happy for their washing by the rain.

    1. When our options are limited, it helps to look a little harder. Not everything was so photogenic on my first trip into the newly-reopened nature center, but there certainly were things of interest, including the tiny sand “dunes” that formed along the walking trails. Like the coating on these leaves, they’re gone now, too — washed away by rain that, strangely enough, was quite welcome.

  2. Mother Nature heals as quickly as she hurts. The trick for us humans, in the words of T.E. Lawrence, is not minding that it hurts. There is beauty in everything, even disasters.

    After three spring flood events in just two years, we’ve noticed the Marsh Wrens and Swamp Sparrows notably absent from a once vibrant flood plain breeding ground. I guess two broods washed out in a row are just too much to bear for returning to nesting grounds. I really miss them.

    1. I’m finally heading down to the refuges on Sunday, and I’ll be interested to see which birds are around. I’m sure many ground nesters suffered losses, and I’ve heard there’s concern for the Attwater Prairie Chickens in particular. Some folks I know in Chambers County say their acorns and pecans are dropping fast, and the palm trees down here are beginning to yellow. I suppose we’ll be seeing damage for weeks to come; some of it may be surprising.

      You’re right that the healing begins quickly, though. I saw an entire median recently that was covered with frog fruit, and sunflowers are popping up everywhere. The good news is that there’s still time for recovery before our autumn sets in. While I’d be happy for cooler temperatures myself, if a little extra summer helps with recovery, I’m all for it.

  3. Very interesting photo and very lovely and poetic caption.
    The leaves remind me of an exhibit of ceramics I saw once.
    The artist, cannot remember her name, used a raku kiln, and instead of the usual coarse stoneware kind of clay, full of grog or whatever, for the outer layers, she worked with thin layers of porcelain clay. These shattered, of course, under the rough thermal shock, and she reassembled the pieces like an archaeologist. That may sound a little precious, but it was a cool effect and looked a lot like your leaves.
    I guess that makes Texas like nature’s kiln! (or maybe Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace! :) )

    1. It’s not unusual here in central Texas to walk paths along creeks that are prone to flash flooding and to see, isolated way up in creekside trees, things that improbably high floodwaters had deposited there.

      1. When I was a kid, we watched some oldtime western, maybe “Cisco Kid” or something, and I think that’s where they had a flash flood coming down an arroyo, it made a big impression on us.

      2. When I first came to the hill country, I was bemused by the measuring rods next to the low water crossings. With only a trickle washing over the rocks, I couldn’t imagine that the water might get four, or six, or eight feet deep. Flooding rivers made sense to me, but I’d never considered the possibility that creeks can become rivers under the right circumstances.

        I just checked ATXfloods, and they’re showing fifty crossings currently closed in and around Austin — where there are 1,942 crossings. They use a phrase on the site I’ve never heard: “flash flood alley.” With that many low water crossings, I’d say it’s deserved.

        1. That’s a good site to know about. I see that only one of the 50 closings is in Travis County, way down at the southern tip.

          I’ve heard the phrase “flash flood alley.” As you say, it’s deserved.

    2. I have a sense of what you’ve described, pottery-wise, but I couldn’t find an image of it. Of course, not knowing the right term for it makes searching tough. It surprised me to see the sandy “shell” coming off the leaves in such large pieces. On some, I was able to remove pieces of the shell, and it didn’t break. In fact, it was quite sturdy.

      It felt less like a kiln than a sauna this week. It may be the first day of autumn, but you couldn’t prove it by us. Still, even with the humidity, the heat is helping things to dry out.

    1. It is the cycle of life, isn’t it? It’s easy, and appropriate, to get caught up in the human aspects of weather events, but nature also experiences fire or flood in particular ways, and those ways are worthy of notice, too.

    1. That looks good, and the resemblance between the leaves and the woven container is clear. If the site I found can be trusted, kinasing is only one of six forms of puso. I loved this: “Puso is best paired with other Cebuano foodstuff like Lechon Baboy, Siomai, Ngohiong, Lechon Manok, Barbecue, Ginabot (chicharong bulaklak) that can be found near Redemptorist Church in Mango Avenue.” If I’m ever in Cebu, I’m heading straight to Mango Avenue.

      Does puso translate as “heart”? If so, that’s an interesting connection to Chinese dim sum, which I learned means “dot heart,” or “to touch the heart gently.”

      1. Eve says puso does mean ‘heart,’ and presumably the hanging rice reminded people of a little heart (as opposed to the ‘touch the heart’ notion you say is inherent in dim sum). I should add that while Cebuano has five written vowels, it has only three spoken vowels, with i and e indistinguishable, and also u and o indistinguishable. As a result, puso is pronounced in Cebuano as if it were pusu, with the stress on the second syllable. There’s also a catch in the voice at the end, known as a glottal stop. It’s the sound of the t in the English word hit, for those like me who replace the original t with a catch in the voice.

        1. I’m sure you’re familiar with everything in this video about the glottal stop, but I thought the woman explained it well, and was entertaining in the process.

          Beyond that, your mention of the glottal stop brought to mind one of my favorite childhood rhymes:

          “Shake and shake the ketchup bottle;
          first a little, then a lottle.”

          Of course I had to try an adaptation, just for fun.

          “Those tricky phonemes surely boggle;
          first the glide, and then a glottal.”

          1. Sorry to upset the glottal cart. The historical pronunciation of a t and the glottal pronunciation of a t still represent the same phoneme. The differing versions are called allophones.

            I remember your quoting that ketchup rhyme in other comments. I didn’t know the ditty till you quoted it. It reminds me now of a word I learned from Mad Magazine: axlotl.

  4. There are still areas here where you can see the traces of our flood~plants arrested in their growth and leaves encased in mud. My mood is bleak this morning. We are having sweltering temperatures here, about 20 degrees warmer than normal, and I just saw a photo of Mt. Rainier, in Wa, with no snow on it. This after seeing a headline claiming that global warming isn’t happening.

    1. Your flood was mid-summer, as I recall — July seems as though it’s months and months ago, but it isn’t. I’m not surprised you’re still seeing traces.

      We’ve been lucky this time around. After Ike, we moved into extended drought, which not only left us short of water generally, but also meant salt couldn’t be washed from the soils in time to save some of the trees. On Galveston Island, they did their best with water trucks, but it just wasn’t enough.

      It’s interesting to track these storms and weather patterns. Right now, everyone here is aware that October is coming, and Texas has experienced only two October hurricanes since 1900. We’d like to keep it that way.

      We’d like a cool front, too. It looks like you may have rain and a front next week — the 64 predicted for Chicago sounds just fine.

      1. 64 does sound just fine. I was at an outdoor art fair yesterday in Racine Wisconsin. I’d hoped it would be cooler by the Lake, as it usually is, but not yesterday. We baked but it was fun.
        I’m sorry to hear of your trees being lost to salt. As I understand it, trees in California are dying from a combination heat stress, drought and beetles, with the fire finishing them off. Tragic state of affairs.

  5. It’s inspiring to realize how strong Mother Nature is! I remember going south after Katrina and being stunned at how many trees were stripped completely bare of leaves. Now, of course, they’re wearing new gowns. Your part of the world, too, will heal.

    1. It’s been unbelievable to see what Maria did to Puerto Rico, not only in terms of human habitation and infrastructure, but also to the island’s trees. The before and after photos are stunning. We saw the same sort of phenomenon after Ike. As you say, many of those trees still are growing and producing leaves — but the scars are there. We have some strangely mis-shapen trees here and there as storm souvenirs. Anyone who’s been through a storm like Katrina or Ike can recognize them immediately.

    1. The regeneration of the world — whether naturally, as with the seasons, or after a storm — is a wonder to behold. It just now occurs to me that I’ve never heard “regeneration” used in terms of human community in such circumstances. We always talk about “recovery.” The difference is something worth pondering. Perhaps we need both.

      1. I agree, Linda. They seem to go hand in hand. Nature is pretty amazing. Look at a desert after a rainstorm, a forest after a fire, or victims of a natural disaster reclaiming their lives. –Curt

    1. Indeed. And sloughing off at least some of the effects of time and circumstance is possible to the very end, if these leaves are any indication. Beyond that, they clearly were able to “go with the flow” of a strong, sustained current in a way that human structures were not. The same water that tore up docks and carried away boats passed over these leaves — and here they are.

  6. Those did look like bats! How the mind fills in the blanks ( probably causes most of the problems with humans?)
    It is amazing how fast the environment recovers – and all the little treasures left behind (if you can get there before they get stepped on or blown away).
    Great word choice – and one of the best flood/recovery posts I’ve read. Real poetry and delight.

    1. Bats are a perfect analogy, since dealing with this flood has driven more than a few people batty. And you’re right about nature’s quick recovery. It will take time (have you seen all the yellowing palm trees?) but the impulse is there. I’ve been most impressed by the yellow bells. Plants that were pruned within an inch of their lives before the storm are thick with foliage and blooms now. Their pollinators have to be thrilled.

      It’s strange how many metamorphoses this post went through before this version. It kept being not right, and then it was right — thanks to a whole lot of different word choices. Thanks for your good words.

  7. We become so focused on the human toll we forget that nature, too, suffers during such events. Obviously, trees rooted in sodden ground are blown down by gale-force winds, or shoved over by irresistible flood waters, but the microcosm suffers, too. Hectares of grass are smothered in mud, and those animals that depend on it starve for lack of food. Bugs of all sorts are smothered or drowned. Birds too small to brave the wind, starve because they cannot get to food even if there is any food left for them. Small animals drown or starve. Deer drown from exhaustion because they cannot find any exposed land to stand on, or if they do find it, there’s nothing on it they can eat. Such disasters affect every living thing in the area.

    1. That’s exactly right. And don’t forget the fish, shrimp, and other such creatures. So much fresh water rushing into our bay system sent salt water species out into the gulf, and the oysters, who can’t just pick up and move, are suffering.

      On the other hand, it’s not just the plants who are showing new flushes of growth. I never have seen so many dragonflies, or so many lizards of every sort running around. I have to watch my step, lest I take out one or two every time I cross the parking lot. They’re no more than two inches long, and some haven’t learned that freezing in place isn’t necessarily the best defense.

      And then there are the mosquitoes. They seem to be doing just fine.

      1. The dragonflies and the lizards will be thriving on the mosquito hordes provided by the flooding. With reference to my latest post concerning darning, I discovered that there is a dragonfly called a green darner. Do you know it?

        1. I do. In fact, I’m pretty sure I have a photo of one. If I’d ever acted on my impulse to gather my few dragonfly photos and put them all together into a folder named “dragonflies,” I could produce it in an instant. Unfortunately, it’s going to take a little longer or a little more luck to find it just now, but searching for it will give me a good excuse to make that folder.

    1. There’s no question that nature seems always to find a way to new life: at least, absent extraordinary circumstances or human interference. The time frame can differ substantially (prairies and forests post-fire, for example) but the impulse toward restoration and regrowth is a part of their very being.

      Whether nature always takes death lightly, I’m not so sure. At least in terms of the creatures, they seem quite capable of feeling grief at the loss of one of their own. But even in those circumstances, it seems they move on, and continue living.

  8. The Attwater Prairie Chickens have been on my mind. I so hope that they were not wiped out. I wonder if any are living the good life as captive breeding pairs in a preservation breeding program site. I’m thinking of how some of the whooping cranes were bread in captivity. I’ll need to do some research via Google.

    Your words to accompany the delicate leaved photo are perfect. You just have a way. Linda. And, I’m not trying to stroke your feathers- either.

    1. I know the prairie chickens weren’t wiped out, Yvonne. At least some of the birds that were being held in pens at their refuge were taken to safety: not many, but some. Otherwise, I haven’t read any reports about the refuge itself, except a brief note that floating fire ant islands moved into the area, and those little devils are busy eating up the insects that the prairie chickens eat. There’s another refuge here that I believe has prairie chickens. I’ll have to give them a call and see what happened there. Since they weren’t free-ranging, they probably are safe.

      The hummingbirds are having a real problem finding norishment, too. Insectivores are doing all right, but we’ve got a real shortage of flowers right now, and people who have feeders hardly can keep them filled.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the word-photo pairing. Finding just the right words for this one wasn’t easy, but in the end I was happy with it.

      1. I looked to Google as usual and read that there are one or more captive breeding programs, including some zoos that house the birds. In my humble opinion the program should be expanded as much as possible. One article mentioned land reclamation. Now that is something that I can hardly envision happening. Allowing the land to be eaten up by development should not have happened in the beginning. I did not center my thougths too much on years but I think it was 1996, maybe that the numbers of APC in the wild had reached a low of 26 pair or number of birds all together. Don’t take this as accurate but I was astounded that the bird’s numbers had been allowed to dip so low.

  9. Excellent! The photograph, the writing, the title, the idea….
    I’ve seen those remnants, here and in Arizona. Here, it’s generally grasses that are caught up in branches, high on a riverbank, making your eyes bulge to think of how high the river has been. In Arizona I remember a dry riverbed with lots of evidence on the ground, and at many levels, and it was all in the same palette you have shown here, which is so appealing to me.

    1. Just this morning, I heard about a hunting camp up on the Trinity River where the water marks on the trees were 18′ off the ground. That’s some serious flooding. At the nature center where I took this photo, three or four feet seemed average. Probably the most memorable detritus I’ve ever seen was a small Catalina sailboat that was stuck in the trees in Pensacola after Ivan. There used to be a photo of it online, but I can’t find it now. No matter — I’ll never forget it.

      The same day I took this photo, I thought of you because of something else I found. Of course I laughed to think you’d been roaming the Texas creekbeds.

  10. Linda, your words and observations are as exquisite as your photograph. Isn’t it amazing how the world wakes up after being so sorely beaten? Your keen eye notices so much, down to the water marks on the trees. Eloquent and elegant.

    1. That’s exactly it, Jeanie — the world coming back to consciousness after being beaten up. Even today, stories are continuing to bubble to the surface: things that people experienced, things that they saw. What happened to the natural world’s as extraordinary in its way as what happened to human communities. I suppose I saw these leaves as a symbol of that. But life is stirring, and there are plenty of signs that nature is trying to make up for some of what was lost.

    1. First– welcome back! I hope all’s going well, and that your time in Mindo’s refreshing. Perhaps there will even be a post from you? I’m sure there have been adventures galore.

      It’s the strangest thing, Lisa. I expected mosquitoes galore, but on the day I took this photo, there were none. Yesterday, I finally made it down to the Brazoria refuge, which is partly open. There wasn’t a mosquito there, either. I can’t figure it out. It’s true that they’ve done some aerial spraying, but in the past that didn’t mean a complete absence of the beasties.

      One fishing guide suggested that all of the eggs and larvae simply were swept out into the Gulf. Everything else got sent downstream, so maybe he has a point. At the height of the flooding the current was running as much as 12-15 kts, so it’s possible.

      1. Yes, in Costa Rica I often marveled at the volume of water, yet the mosquitoes were never as bad as they were in the Deep South. It often rained very hard, and some nights the 7-inch rain gauge would over flow. I asked an entomologist who lived in the area if the heavy rains helped control the mosquitoes.. yes, he said, and that they needed shallow water to ‘replicate’ – so if it was water that was deep – and quickly drained or soaked back into the ground, then the mosquito cycle was cut short….

        At least all of you did not have that misery of fogs of mosquitoes!

        1. Over in Chambers County, around Anahuac, there are people who measured 60 inches in their rain gauges. That could flood out just about anything. Of course, now that the worst of the flooding has receded, the water in the marshes and forests may bring some of those critters to life.

            1. This will make you laugh — they’re catching bluegill and catfish down at the Galveston jetties. The water’s salting up a bit now, but it was so fresh that all the fish that were carried out of the lakes were forced downstream, and they set up shop.

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