City workers remove what was left of one of the tornado-damaged trees.
City workers remove what was left of one of the tornado-damaged trees. Credit: Kirk Williamson

Tornado warning. Ooh, I’m sooo scared.

As a lifelong midwesterner, I was familiar with the sounding of the alarm, but I had yet to witness anything more destructive than a nasty storm and maybe, if Ma Nature decided to get a little spicy, a downed limb or two. I was lulled into weather-related complacency by a lifetime of close calls and the imagined immunity of living in a big city, rather than on a flat plane of doom. But, as I like to say, nothing happens until it does.

The storm rolled in right on schedule, reaching Rogers Park at just a few minutes after 4 PM on August 10, 2020. Ten minutes before, I went down to check my mail and stepped outside to get a glimpse of the swirling sky. A menacing ridge of dark blue clouds loomed in the west. I hurried up the stairs and got ready to watch the storm, as I have always loved to do from the vantage point of my six-foot-tall picture window, complete with a canopy of mature trees. I could gauge the strength of the storm by how severely the branches would bend and whip in the winds. From behind a double pane of glass, the explosive and unpredictable world was rendered as benign as the Judge Judy rerun that droned from the TV on the adjacent wall.

The winds began and I took out my phone to text a friend. My text was meant to read, “The winds just started,” but by the time I got to the word “just,” I found myself running for safety into the hallway. A cacophony of snapping wood and battering rain. Cats nowhere to be found. The pressure was so great that even with all windows closed, the bathroom door slammed shut.

Credit: Kirk Williamson

It did not sink in right away that a tornado had just occurred. It wasn’t until the following morning that it was confirmed by the National Weather Service. The destruction was clear: 50-foot trees laid down across the streets; root systems unearthed and buckling the sidewalks; flattened cars; the grey metal pole of the laundromat’s sign on the corner still attached but blown parallel to the ground. An hour after the storm, once the clouds completely dissipated and the sun shone again, I surveyed the damage street by street and my street, Jarvis Avenue, was demonstrably hardest hit. And the canopy of trees, upon which I had relied for 20 years for privacy, shade, protection, relaxation, and consistency, had been mercilessly ripped apart. My bad for expecting mercy in the first place.

Credit: Kirk Williamson
Credit: Kirk Williamson

The following morning, I awoke to the buzz of chainsaws and a flurry of activity from the street below. A call had been put out by My Block, My Hood, My City to pitch in and help make the street navigable, which seemed a Herculean effort. I could do no less than to grab my handsaw and join the effort. Two hours later, with the assistance of volunteers from all over Chicago and Jarvis Avenue in particular, enough work had been done such that vehicles could now traverse the damage.

At one point in the effort, as about nine of us were working as a team to clear branches from the largest of the felled trees, we piled the debris on the grass to the side of the road. The man who owned the house on that lot griped loudly that we should not be placing “garbage” on his property. One of the leaders of the effort calmly attempted to reason with him, and in a show of solidarity (and out of earshot of the homeowner), quietly reassured the team not to listen to the “oppressor.”

While some trees were uprooted entirely, most others were left irreparably damaged. On a warm day in December, the city dispatched a crew to remove the remains. I watched with a profound sadness as these arboreal giants, which had shielded me for two decades, were erased.

Credit: Kirk Williamson

It’s hard to perceive the speed at which a tree grows and becomes mighty. But if I assume that these trees were about 80 years old, they had been a part of my experience for a full quarter of their time on Earth. Their roots grew under my feet and into my psyche. Where is my ground upon which to stand when they are unceremoniously snatched from my view?

2020 was a year of confounded lessons. The human interaction and ease of movement we forgivably take for granted can be ripped away, and we flail to find our footing in a new reality. The peace we rely upon can no longer be tethered to external objects. All we can truly rely on is our mechanism to endure.

Trees can be replanted. As the seedling nudges free of its coat and squiggles skyward toward sunlight, soon we will stretch our limbs and find a new comfort. It’s just a season or two away. It took the loss of my beloved trees, but this is the main lesson I have learned from 2020.

That, and don’t listen to the oppressor.   v

Credit: Kirk Williamson