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  • Writer's pictureMarilyn DuHamel

Elemental Theater

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

I’m a weather watcher. Always have been. If there’s a lightning storm, I look for the safest front row seat. If there’s a hard rain, I go to my little hut with the metal roof so that I can hear the full sound effects. Strong winds and rainbows have me leaning over my deck railing, not wanting to miss a moment of the play before me.

The truth is, I bought this home for the view. Of course I liked the house itself, but when I came to view it with my realtor, I walked right through the front door, barely glancing at the kitchen and living room, to step out onto the deck that overlooked the San Lorenzo Valley. There’s a 180-degree view of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and all that sky above them. I felt like I had come home.

Essentially, I have season tickets and a front row seat for the best theater imaginable. However, I never could have imagined this winter’s theatrical program: dramatic, sometimes tragic, and very little comedy.

* * *

An atmospheric river is a corridor of saturated moisture from the tropics, unleashing relentless rain and snow on higher latitudes. It is also described as a fire hose, aimed at and then drenching a particular region.

Since the beginning of 2023, California has been that particular region, with incomprehensible volumes of water - fifteen times the daily discharge of the Mississippi River - driven by gale force winds and even localized tornadoes.

Within a twenty-mile radius from my home in the tiny town of Ben Lomond, my greater community of Santa Cruz County has suffered widespread flooding, broken levees, mudslides, sinking roads, and two destroyed wharfs caused by massive ocean surges. It’s even snowed, large white flakes covering low elevation landscapes, including my town, that haven’t had snow stick for several decades.

My property, perched near a ridgetop, is thankfully too high for flooding but especially susceptible to strong upslope winds and massive rainfall. One morning, after a night of relentless cyclonic winds, I wake to a heartbreaking sight. My favorite tree, a knob cone pine by my deck that has hosted chickadees, hummingbirds, doves and acorn woodpeckers, is severed in two. It is now just a trunk, with one lone and lonely branch remaining. Broken shingles from my roof mingle with the fallen tree branches below.

I inspect the rest of the land and notice the two tall pines near my writing hut a bit further up the ridge from my house, have toppled. Miraculously, the top branches are only resting against the walls of the hut, but have not broken through.

As the strong winds continue through the morning, I anxiously watch two of the few remaining pine trees rocking back and forth from their base, exposed roots pulling out of the soil with each gust. Thankfully, there is little danger that they could fall on my home, but I frantically cut away the lower limbs, hoping to reduce windage, or, at least, if they fall, to minimize the damage to the surrounding vegetation. They remain standing at a precarious 35-degree angle.

Retreating to bed and pulling up the covers brings no solace, as I now see that a portion of the ceiling above me is bulging from the weight of pooled water. It has been driven horizontally through my attic air vents by the downpour. I poke holes through the paint to relieve the pressure. Drip drip drip.

Snow falling in Ben Lomond

* * *

Despite all of this, let me go on record: I love storms. I anticipate their arrival with excitement. Yes, I worry about what may happen and mourn what they destroy. I’m frustrated by many days without power in these last stormy weeks and with canceled plans due to road closures and dangerous conditions.

But still I love storms? Why?

Because a storm is magnificent. It magnifies the typical and the ordinary. Wind becomes gale. Rain becomes torrent. Lightening is blinding, a thunderclap booming, silencing everything else to a whisper. For me, there is an odd reassurance in feeling small and humbled, and paradoxically, wild and boundless. As the poet Gary Snyder said, “Wildness is perennially within us, dormant as a hard-shelled seed, awaiting the fire or flood that awakens it again”.

Yes, storms are fierce. But I can feel a kindness in this fierceness, like a friend who will tell me what no one else is brave enough to say. Storms shake my shoulders, stun me out of stagnation, seduce me into the moment with wet and wind and water. Everything, including me and my busy mind, comes to a halt.

A storm is one thing we humans have yet to control. May that always be so.

* * *

The next day, finally seeing a break in the weather, I take my dog, Benny, for a hike above the house. The rain has paused but the wind has doubled down. We get to the small hilltop where a weathered, fallen tree drapes over the knoll. Benny stands on the tree’s extended limb, like a captain on the bowsprit of a boat. He barks and lunges at the circling crows as if they are black, winged versions of Moby Dick. He seems to see them as crazy, cawing beings that need to be corralled, while I see them as comrades, seemingly equally excited by the atmospheric disturbance.

Thirty crows are now spinning, diving, rising in the wind. Twisting, falling, rolling. Chasing one another in mad pursuit, then pivoting to soar side-by-side. I lose track of time and it seems they’ve forgotten their typical respites of meadow and treetops. There’s too much going on up in the swirling currents, like kayakers repeating a favorite river run, over and over. Neck arched, face lifted, my eyes trace their endless, shifting patterns. I don’t want to come down either.

* * *

Another long day of rain. Benny and I stand in the open doorway, looking out, each of us reluctant. We both know he has to pee. He looks at me, I look at him. The rain pours down like a gushing cold waterfall. We glance again at each other again. Now?

Okay. Now! We dart outside, and race down the driveway.

But then…. it’s not so bad is it, not really, him with his thick furry coat, me with my green rubbery raingear. And my god, it was stuffy, inside all those hours. We splash through puddles like kids in galoshes. We linger, we stroll, we dance and prance, happily drenched. I’m sure Benny’s also laughing as we finally scurry inside the door.

* * *

The rain has let up and my eyes are computer bleary. I decide Benny and I deserve a little break. We drive the three miles north to Boulder Creek Veterinary Clinic to drop off a specimen and weigh him. He dutifully sits on the large metal scale, and before the digital numbers make a decision, the building goes dark. Power out! A fierce wind greets us as we leave the office. I can’t wait to get back home, but the storm has other plans.

Two miles down the road, I see what caused the outage: a large tree has fallen across the road, taking the power lines with it. I glance up and see slender redwood trees crazily swirling, like palm trees in a hurricane. I make a quick U turn and drive back to Boulder Creek. Howling wind and branches fall around the car, and I barely breathe until I pull into the Wild Roots Grocery Store parking lot, protected from falling trees in this heavily forested area.

I call a friend and discover that this unexpected weather development is being described as a “bomb cyclone” by meteorologists. Another new term for my vocabulary list. It’s defined as a powerful, rapidly intensifying storm accompanied by a sudden drop in atmospheric pressure, and can generate hurricane-force winds.

Over the next few hours, I make drenching dashes into the grocery store for comfort food as well as the comfort of friendly staff and customers, each with a story.

In the car, next to my anxiously alert dog, I check the map app on my phone for alternate routes back home. To my dismay, every single route out of town - north, south, east and west - is now impassable. Yellow triangles and red lines pepper the map. Trees have continued to topple, blocking the crews trying to open the roads. We are trapped.

Cold and wet, I’m an odd combination of scared, awe-struck, frustrated and bored. Occasionally I roll down my window to viscerally experience the forces at play, but mostly I am preoccupied with how to get home. We could be here hours, perhaps overnight. How to pass the time? Then I realize, what better sound effects than the wind and rain for the blog audio recording I need to do. I tap the Voice Memo app and begin to read out loud, “I’m a weather watcher. Always have been ….”

After 4 hours, I am able to drive back to Ben Lomond. The heroic road crews have managed to clear a single lane for us to get past the fallen trees and mudslides. I check my phone map app a bit later and notice that the road is closed once again. But we have made it home.

Side street near my home the same day

* * *

A day later, I wake from an unsettling dream at 3 a.m. and lay in bed thinking about my walk along the San Lorenzo River in Henry Cowell State Park last week, the landscape shockingly unrecognizable. Established pathways had washed away or were covered with sand deposits from the high water, huge uprooted trees were everywhere, as if a giant gardening god had come through pulling out weeds. The churned up, muddy river, moving with such force, filled me with awe, and then I looked over at the houses on the opposite bank, wondering what it must be like for the people living so close to the river, gauging its rise, agonizing over whether to flee or not.

San Lorenzo River in Henry Cowell State Park

I get up and open the sliding glass door. What are you doing out there storm? The cool moist air answers. Soothes my face. Rain splatters the wooden side deck. I hear the slender acacia trees arching over in the wind passing through, limbs limber, creating visual images through sound. My body gently sways, mirroring their movement. I feel a tenderness for it all.

And a sense of good fortune. While my losses in these storms may be sad, inconvenient, and costly, they aren’t devastating and life changing like they’ve been for so many in the county. My home isn’t filled with river water, and I don’t own a restaurant that may never resume business after surging seas washed through. I don’t live in the neighborhood where the only road to town collapsed, making it impossible to get a prescription for a life-threatening illness. And I’m not a farm worker living near a broken levee, a sheriff pounding on my door in the middle of the night, and wondering where can we go now?

So much devastation. The impact from this series of twelve atmospheric rivers reminds me of the aftermath of the catastrophic CZU Lightning Complex Fire, a wildfire that seared our communities only three years ago. So many people are still trying to rebuild their lives, so many habitats are still struggling to heal.

Yes, despite the challenges, I have fared comparatively well this round, while others have suffered greatly. I return to a familiar dilemma. Is it okay to experience the awesomeness while there is awfulness? It’s the existential paradox of allowing joy while there is grief, of navigating multiple realities existing side by side, of holding contradiction.

Walt Whitman said it so well: “I contain multitudes.” I believe we do, it’s something I love about our species. My heart breaks for those suffering great loss, even as I thrill to the shifting air currents sculpting the cloudy skies, even as I stand by the roiling rushing water, ecstatic as I marvel at the transformation of a previously listless river. There are different sorts of love, the close-up love and concern I feel for each plant, wild animal, and human and the vast impersonal love and wonder I feel being witness to the dazzling elemental theater of earth.

The three landscape photos are from my deck - each its own theatrical display

Audio Recording: Originally, the recording took place while I was stuck in the Wild Roots parking lot, the raging wind and rain the background sounds during the entire story. But given the story kept evolving and growing since that day, I needed to redo the recording. It seemed only right, however, to end the piece with the storm's voice.

If you have any responses to this essay or experiences you would like to share, please email me at - I would love to hear from you. If you do, you can let me know whether or not you would like me to post them at the end of this blog. (I have disabled the website comment section due to glitches with it.)

If you too are mesmerized by the power of the elemental world - its beauty as well as its destructive capacity - you might want to read the three essays in my Fire Series, particularly Fire Series #1: Lit Up, in which I am transfixed by the massive lightning storm that then caused the devastating wildfires of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in 2020.


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