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Alumni News — Fall 2005

Stormy Weather

Along with most other towns in the mid-Atlantic and Southern states, Charlottesville has had its share of tornados and possible-tornados, sudden storms sometimes said to be microbursts, hurricanes, and similar events. Some of these events pass with little impact on most students and faculty members. They tend to pass through in late afternoon or in the evening, when most people have had time to get indoors and little traffic moves through the streets.

Some have had almost benign impact, albeit benign in that special way in which Providence sometimes watches out for those who don't watch out for themselves. I remember, for example, walking up Rugby Road with the dogs during a lull in Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Working my way through fallen branches, around flotsam that piled up as debris blew through the neighborhood, and (at a greater distance), around drooping and fallen overhead cables, I heard noise coming up from Mad Bowl, where students (soaked, mud-covered, almost frantic) had organized what looked like volleyball, track and field events, and a version of either rugby football or soccer—hard to tell which. The University Police intervened to remind everyone that downed wires can be bad news. The assembled crowd drifted off into sorority and fraternity houses, dormitories, and apartments, and what might have been dangerous became a quiet footnote to a violent storm.

The 2003-2005 storm seasons have been especially rough for our trees and gardens. These green parts of the landscape change constantly, storms or no-storms, but change has come with lightning speed in these two seasons when the tropical storms have come early and kept coming. The original McGuffey Ash, in Pavilion IX's garden, lasted from 1826 until it died in 1990. The more recent tree was planted in 1996 following almost a decade of discussions of how best to replace it. The local white and red oaks in Carr's Hill's yards, on the yard between University Avenue and the Rotunda, and elsewhere, and sycamores sometimes said to have been Mr. Jefferson's plantings, may have been similarly old, but their ends came suddenly and without celebration, often late at night, as hurricanes and other storms have ripped through the Grounds.

Hurricane Isabel, for example, took out a massive white oak that was thought to be the oldest of our trees. After standing a kind of green guard beside University Avenue below the Rotunda and slightly to the east of left as one faces the building, this tree came down with a bomb-like roar accompanied by the crackles of dozens of huge branches snapping off early in the evening of September 18, 2003. (For a description of that evening and how students and employees made out during Isabel, see I walked over to the site the following morning to talk with electrical workers and arborists who were cutting out cables that came down with the tree, and beginning the job of cutting up the tree and eventually planting a replacement—this one named to honor Ernest Ern following letters from alumni who felt that the site, just as one enters the Grounds, was ideal for the purpose.

Our summer season 2005 storm damage has been no less dramatic. Mary Hughes, the University's landscape architect, tells me that by early July we had lost no fewer than 30 major trees, most of them in the central Grounds, where the storm of July 5 did most of its damage. No fewer than nine of these lost trees formerly stood on the Lawn itself, and we are already factoring into the planning for Finals 2006 the reality that some of the shade we count on each year to protect graduates and their families from the blazing sun that sometimes appears here in late May will be missing.

Four of these lost trees were in pavilion gardens. To see the impact most graphically, one might walk into the garden behind Pavilion VI on the East Lawn. You may remember this garden because at the bottom of its steep slope is the pinnacle from one of Merton College's 15th-century spires, placed here in 1928 as a gift from Oxford University. A photograph of the pinnacle before this year's storm appears at Struck directly by lightning during the worst of this storm, a nearby tree exploded on the night of Tuesday, July 5, and this explosion effectively blew apart the pinnacle. Garden workers and masons are at work now reconstructing the pinnacle using the original stones and restoring the lost trees. But for the loss of a major tree and the presence of a replacement, the garden should be more or less as it was when the students return for the fall semester.

This morning, I passed a woman whom I see walking every two or three days. She was standing at the foot of Rugby Road waiting for the traffic light to change and looking through the newly opened landscape at the Rotunda. This view used to exist only in winter because one of the largest of the University's sycamores (snapped or twisted off several days ago some 30 or so feet above the ground) filled it in summer. We talked for a few minutes, and she concluded by saying that perhaps this is not so bad, that nature regenerates life and does so especially well in a garden, and that she had never before seen the Rotunda quite so clearly or sharply as she did that morning, her vista framed in summer's green and bathed in that early morning sunlight that follows major storms.

John T. Casteen III