As a tornado ended its short but dramatic life in my neighborhood last May, it dipped its tail into the woods surrounding my house and also into the forest on a neighbor’s adjacent property, between us and the Pedlar River. I didn’t come upon evidence of any of this until a few days later, after I had talked to my neighbor. He was out haying his field across the county road from my house, and I went out to find him because I wanted to ask him about buying one of his bales for my goats. His observation about the storm was that “there was stuff in the field from as far away as Boonsboro.” Boonsboro is the part of Lynchburg across the James River from us, and quite a few miles to the southeast. His observation about debris coming from somewhere else rang true with what I’d witnessed after that storm. Our back pasture seemed to be decorated with droppings from pine and deciduous trees, many from species other than what grew around the perimeter. The twigs and branches seemed evenly distributed, spaced all throughout the clearing, as if the storm had been a giant food processor picking up ingredients from all over the place, chopping them into similar sizes, then dropping them.

But mostly my neighbor had been talking about the huge old oak trees the tornado had brought down, here and there across a large stretch of his woods on the edge of the hayfield. And that had led him to ask me, “Have you seen what happened at the end of the road?”

I walked to the end of the county road the next morning, and that was when I realized why his eyes had been so big as he had asked me whether I’d seen this. Less than 1000 feet from our driveway, a huge hole in the sky had formed in the woods next to the road, created by the absence of a mess of very big trees, oaks and pines that had filled that space since before I had moved here almost thirty years ago. It was disconcerting. It made a part of the world that had become very familiar to me look suddenly strange and ominous. I was not able to get a picture of it because the scale didn’t translate into what my IPhone could see.

Louie the cat explores the newly revealed understory

My neighbor and I had agreed, when we spoke of it again a few days later, that it was as if the big trees had been spun up out of the ground and dropped, not just knocked over. Others had been snapped at fifteen feet off the ground–otherwise healthy trees decapitated, as it were. And as the days went by and I looked more closely at the various disturbed areas, I noticed quite a few that had been spun enough to show a swirled crack in the bark of their trunks, like an open zipper. But they hadn’t fallen–yet.

My neighbor and I had both seen many trees felled by storms in our time here (his longer than mine), and before he retired recently he had spent nearly 30 years as a lineman tending powerlines in places where natural disasters had occurred. He had much more experience than I did putting together the story of a storm by looking at its wake of destruction. And the fact that he’d “never seen anything like this” meant something more than my surprise.

As August rolls around, I’m wondering what I’ll discover after leaf fall this autumn, when I see these ravaged areas up close. It’s hard to see from the road when all the summer vegetation is blurring the picture, and I’m not willing to go exploring in the height of seed tick season. For now, what I know is that tornado has become a much closer-to-home word than it used to be.

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