A storm out of time
Story and photos by Bruce Jackson

albright knox
The national news insists that Buffalo is a city of fierce winters and deep snows, neither of which is true. Winters here get cold, but nothing like Minneapolis or Missoula or Fargo. Snow is sometimes deep here, but only a few times in the past thirty years was it deep enough to shut down the city and close the airport. Go a few miles out and you’re in the Snowbelt, the band south of Lake Erie where lake effect storms do their photogenic worst. But winter in Buffalo itself is usually as benign as you might hope for, this far north.

Usually, not always. Not this year. This year an October lake effect storm dumped two feet of snow on a city unprepared in every way for it. The snow came earlier than it had any right to come, earlier than any two-foot snowfall had ever come before. It surprised the schools, the airport, the shops, the power supply, all of which shut down. It also surprised the trees, which hadn’t yet gotten around to shedding their foliage. They shut down too, many of them for good.

The October storm in Buffalo had four sounds specific to it, perhaps all the more remarkable because they came as consequence of a deep early snowfall, and snowfalls are by nature ever quieter the longer they go on and the deeper they get. What happened in Buffalo was time and nature out of joint.

The sound of silence

Rain sets tires hissing and it rattles on roofs and windows and on coats and hats of those wearing coats or hats. Snow is nothing like that. The deeper the snow, the quieter the world. What is more tranquil than a deep winter’s night with six inches or so of new snow on the ground? Tires whisper through it. Sounds of voices and doors are absorbed by it, and only the most aggressive noises achieve any distance at all. The only sound greater than ordinary is occasioned by one’s own shoes or boots, crushing the light new-fallen snow, which groans in response to every footfall.

And so it was at the beginning of the snowstorm that assaulted every oak, maple, chestnut, and other broadleaf tree in Buffalo October 12 and 13. As the snow accumulated on the leaves, the branches bent, but the sounds were the ordinary sounds of winter snow in the city. The more snow fell, the quieter the city became.

trees
Such quiet is relative, never absolute, at least not on this earth. True silence is not for us. A neurologist I once knew played audiotapes of nerve cells talking to one another in the spine of a carp. The composer John Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard, touted as the most silent place on Earth, came out and told the guy that Harvard engaged in false advertising. While sealed in that ostensibly silent chamber he’d heard noise. Lots of it. He’d heard a low-pitched roar and a high-pitched whine. The low-pitched roar, the Harvard guy said, was your bloodstream, and the high-pitched whine was your nervous system.

The sound of snow

There was thunder in downtown Buffalo late Thursday afternoon, but no one I saw seemed to pay it much mind. It was only occasional, the lightning wasn’t striking nearby, and people in cars and on foot were mainly concerned with the snow, which had started a few hours earlier and which was quickly piling up on cars and the street.

Lightning during a snowstorm is rare. Maybe we should have paid attention. It wouldn’t have made any difference in the damage that would come in the next twenty-four hours, but if we’d known how rare the afternoon was perhaps we’d have been more ready than we were for what the night would become.

The snow continued as darkness fell. Heavy, wet, sticking. The kind of snow kids love. The kind of snow you see softening the shape and contour of everything. It wasn’t particularly cold and there wasn’t much wind, so it seemed an easy early snow, snow that wouldn’t even need to be plowed because it would melt over the weekend.

I first noticed something wrong when I turned off the Scajaquada and took Delaware Avenue through the S-curves. Bushes and trees were covered with snow and their branches were bent and drooping low. And it was the same on my street on the south end of Delaware Park: trees bent like willows. But they weren’t willows. No—these were maples and oaks and ash.

At first it had that cool beauty the year’s first snow always has. But then I began to notice broken things. A lot of broken things.

Part of one of my neighbor’s trees had fallen across my driveway. (By morning there would be three of them, plus a tree on the other side against my house and a limb from my back fence neighbor atop my garage.) I looked across the street to the park and realized that what I’d taken for bushes weren’t bushes at all but were instead branches from the oaks and maples that had fallen to the ground and had themselves been covered in snow.

trees
What happened, as we all soon learned, was that the heavy, wet snow fell on trees that hadn’t yet had time to drop their leaves, so the branches and limbs became enormous fulcrums that could not bear their own weight. As the night wore on and more and more snow fell—two feet of it in some areas—more and more limbs failed.

Around midnight I let one of the dogs out and heard from the park what I thought was a sound I hadn’t heard since I’d been in the marines decades earlier: the crackling and echoing of rifle fire deep in the woods. The dog scurried back inside quickly and I went to the front windows and opened them. It sounded like infantry over there, firing single rounds at one another in the darkness.

But it wasn’t any of that. It was just the limbs and leafy branches cracking under more weight than they could possibly bear. All night long, from close by and far off, I could hear the trees coming apart, cracking through the night.

Toward morning, the electrical storm moved directly overhead. At first, the thunder got louder, and then the flashes of lightning preceding the peals of thunder got astonishingly bright. Every time I managed to fall back asleep I was wakened by what seemed to be someone turning on more lights than we’d ever had in the bedroom, but it was only the flash of lightning hitting the taller oaks or maples across the street and one of the trees just outside the window.

After a while, the storm moved off. The thunder grew more distant, the sharp cracks of splintering wood grew less frequent, and then it was morning, silent like most other mornings after a heavy snowstorm. Across the street in Delaware Park was devastation everywhere.

Chainsaws

The cleanup started immediately. Within a day, all over the city you saw timber and brush dragged to the curb, ready for whenever the city or state got its act together enough to start picking up the thousands of tons of debris.

All Saturday and Sunday, the voices of chainsaws were everywhere. Chainsaws are rare within the city line—when someone is taking down an old tree, say, but how often does anyone in Buffalo do that? The chainsaws, some near and some distant, would roar into life and settle into undulating whines as they bit into wood. The whines increased in pitch as the teeth passed the middle and sped through the narrowing further side, then roared high as they burst clear and once again ran free.

Sometimes you could hear two or three of them, one going up and the other coming down, working against one another in a distant duet or trio. Then a moment of silence, then one starts, then another, then a third, like birds on a summer day calling across the back yards, or foxes calling across winter fields.

The sound of the chainsaws carried on the wind, just like the sound of the cracking limbs a few days earlier, and, like the cracking limbs, it usually was impossible to know where any of them were.

Steel jaws

The fourth sound of this storm would begin nearly a week after the snow stopped falling. Huge double-trucks, with cranes at the end of which were huge black steel jaws, moved through the city slowly, block by block. Their humming and cranking was first low and distant, and then, as they drew closer, both grew louder, and then, when they were directly in front, the noise and the clarity increased sharply. Again and again the massive steel jaws dropped to the huge piles of sawn and ruptured wood on both sides of the street, lifted them high into the air and then set them gently into one of the two bays of the huge vehicle.

After a while, the debris in front of my house was gone, as was the debris that had lined the road directly across the way, and the machine moved on, its engines reversing the rising sound pattern with which it had approached. And, after a while longer, it was so far away I couldn’t hear it at all. All I could hear were the ordinary sounds of the city, on a Friday afternoon, an afternoon that was mostly grey but occasionally glowing with brief moments of late October sun. And across the street in Delaware Park, and down the street toward Delaware Avenue, the leaves were only now changing into their autumn colors, and beginning to fall to the dark wet ground.

Bruce Jackson is a writer, filmmaker, and professor in the University at Buffalo English department


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