When I was a sprout in Indiana, it was a rare wonder to wake on a winter's morning to find the landscape sparkling with a glaze of ice: too thin to see looking straight on, but radiant in sunlight, especially lit from behind. The word people spoke most often was "fairyland," as if the citizens of Faerie preferred their Realm quick-frozen and brittle as well as dazzling and brilliant.
Here, now: Jackson County, Missouri, west and a little south of my boyhood—a different matter. In spring, when the last cold dry air from Canada slides off the Rockies to contend with warm wet air rising from the Gulf of Mexico, we get supercell thunderstorms and the occasional tornado. In winter, when conditions are the same but the cold can't quite push its way far enough south to make snow, we get ice. Not a fairy-coating, but a solid half-inch or more on every limb, branch, twig, and fractal bifurcation of every tree, shrub, and blade … and every TV, phone, and electrical cable.
The weather forecasters knew this one was coming for two or three days, and preparations were made—still, an ice storm is not the cataclysmic kind of weather one needs to evacuate away from, nor take shelter underground or in a windowless interior until the all-clear sounds. Nature has instead elected to perform slow-motion destructive testing on every exposed surface, to add weight drop by freezing drop until the ultimate strain or shear strength is reached, then exceeded.
I went outside a while ago, as the last of the storm's burden softened from sleet to powdery snow, to clear the debris from the driveway and the back patio. The largest casualty among dozens was a three-pronged limb, thick as my arm where it had broken off, twice my height and more with all its branches, twigs, and nascent leaves (silver maples bud in late fall, holding them tight-fisted until spring). The yard is littered, front and back, with fragments that will need a good thaw and a couple hours’ raking to remove. My roof supports the outermost ends of a limb still barely attached to its tree, splintered and fractured but not freed. It will need professional help.
And yet—from my perspective, anyway—the worst still looms. While outside, my attention was snared by the unmistakable crack of live wood failing under stress, and I looked up in time to watch the tallest tree to be seen from here become a few feet shorter. A major portion of a tree on the next-door-neighbor’s side of my fence is bowed so deeply that its terminal branches are fused, by their mutual coating of ice, with the electric line that feeds this house. Last night, the power went out for just shy of an hour. After it came back on, I heard, twice, the explosion of pole-mounted transformers overloading. My reading light flickered in sympathy but stayed lit.
The forecast is for the wind to increase as the last of the storm clears away, and the overnight temperature to drop near zero, not to return above the melting temperature of ice until Friday. The wind—and the rhythmic strain it will add to that neighbor’s tree, and my power line—worries me most, though I've stocked plenty of dry firewood and adequate food I don’t need to cook. Silly as it may seem in the face of all the rest, I look nervously out through the back window at the bird-feeder branch—bent under the weight of its own ice, plus the ice-covered feeder—wondering if a third junco alighting will be all it needs to come crashing down.