Archive for Sunday, February 10, 2002

Powerless lifestyle quickly loses its charm

February 10, 2002


All afternoon the sky spit pellets of freezing rain, crackling like bacon grease on a pan when they hit the ground. The countryside was still when I walked out the first night. Then in the surrounding woods the cannon cracks began branches falling under the burden of ice, followed by crashes like broken glass.

The next day the fields looked like a vast ruined laboratory contorted tubes, fantastic alembics and retorts. Every blade of grass was sheathed in ice the tall prairie grass transformed into glassy rods and wands, the short grass into fingers of anemones. The sunflower stalks nodded under the weight and every dead sunflower head was enveloped in a globe of ice.

It was beautiful and lethal. For the second year in a row, Mother Nature had spread a hard blanket over the land, covering the seeds of sustenance in shells of ice.

It was a test for predators as well as prey. A tiny woodpecker pecked at the ice enveloping a scrawny branch in a futile search for grubs. A kestrel hovered in the frigid air, then flew back to its power line perch, having weighed the cost of expending energy against the odds of catching a foolish mouse. A Cooper's or a sharp-shinned hawk had better luck, flying without a wingbeat from a tree to pluck a sparrow exposed on an ice-covered bush.

The dogs pranced gingerly on the slippery ground. Soon they discovered the pleasures of putting on the brakes at full speed and going for a wild slide. When they bounded into the fields, they set off a kind of surf that rushed forward as row after row of frozen grass collapsed, mowed down by an invisible scythe that left a harvest of scattered ice.

At first the loss of electricity seemed like an adventure calling upon our little-used survival skills. The light given off by a candle seemed precious to those who were used to flicking on a switch.

It was a revelation to find how warm we were without the furnace. How much money could we save by turning the thermostat down to 50 degrees and wearing long underwear, hats, jackets and gloves? Perhaps we were made of pioneer stock after all.

Confined to the living room and kitchen we considered the rest of the house superfluous. What made us think we needed so many rooms? Warmed by togetherness, family meant more than a designation for tax purposes. With a single lantern as the principal source of light, we couldn't disappear into our individual lairs with our noses in a book. No television meant we had to invent our own entertainments. We talked and got to know one another again.

The fireplace fulfilled its ancient purpose, connecting us to the primeval past and the communal fire which our ancestors gathered around, passing on oral traditions while wolves howled at the forest's edge.

I suppose that for each of us there was an imperceptible turning point when the charms of this primitive existence began to wear thin. For me it was the moment when the dreaded board games came out. I begged my grandson to spare us and bribed him with a trip to the Dollar General store.

The plastic law enforcement kit I bought him turned out to be a good investment. Later as I was sneaking a look at my book appropriately titled Bleak House 7-year-old Alex took the plastic handcuffs and put them on his mother. "You're talking too much, Mom," he said. "You'll make George grumpy."

Bravo, precocious lad. You will go far.

Soon we began to get cold in earnest. Doing without ceased to be a challenge and became a serious annoyance. With no power, my electric juice squeezer was useless. I had to do without orange juice, an intolerable deprivation. Without the electric grinder and the coffee machine I had to forego my afternoon espresso, a necessity of life.

Our faces grew long. We began to get on one another's nerves and made aimless trips in the cars anything to get warm and get out of the house. At last, we heard the blessed roar of the furnace. Lights went on everywhere and an alarm warned us that the freezer's door was open. We were connected once again.

In a day or two, nature grew weary of its masterwork, tore the crystalline canvas off its easel and replaced it with one spattered and dripping with mud. A futile question: Why?

Doubtless we are better for having suffered. But the experience taught me one great thing: To be without power is to be powerless. A man without power is defenseless, pitiful, a wimp.

The life of a caveman may sound picturesque, but without appliances one becomes a brute, beholden to witch doctors, bedeviled by superstitions, afraid of the dark. A man unable to take a hot shower is spurned from polite society like a mangy cur. Life without power is only for the unrefined.

George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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