The Chaos of Nature

Not since 1987 had I heard the bone shattering noise of boulders rolling down Taylor Brook. Our house is about a hundred yards from this stream and even at this distance we could hear the loud constant slamming and crunching of Volkswagen size boulders being rolled through the stream channel. This drew me to put my rain gear on and walk down through the down pouring rain to see the violent rush of water in a stream gone wild.

The end of our driveway is directly across from the merging of Kinsman Brook and Taylor Brook. There is normally a little triangle island at the intersection that holds a few hardwoods. But on this day the water rose four feet up on the trunk of the trees and they were swaying back and forth under the pressure of the streams like a masts on tall ships during a hurricane. The two streams were raging with angry water. I was witnessing maddening waters that were out of control and would not be tempered until the source of their recklessness was relieved. The noise of the furious water was deafening; the pounding, grinding, groaning, and slamming of boulders in the stream insane. Waves of water jumped into the air and with broken crests as boulders moved down slope and pushed through the brook bed. The spray caught in the wind was reminiscent of waves crashing on the rocks in Maine in a winter storm. Whole trees were being swept downstream in the turbulent water that looked as if it were carrying an entire gravel bank in its bed load.

I have lived through some pretty extreme events and am not frightened by too much but this furore ran a shiver down through the center of my spine. I stepped back even though I was no where near the edge of the raging rapids. One slip into this liquid frenzy would spell the end to any living land born animal. In spite of these rabid waters and their extreme danger I was mesmerized by what I was witnessing. The chaos of nature.

The remains of Taylor Brook Road after Irene

The next day, after about 11 inches of rain, I walked along the edge of the road trying to decipher the damage that had occurred in the previous 24 hours. The stream was still fierce but tempered by loss of energy. Its violence was nothing like it had been the previous day. To the west of me the dirt road on which we live was no longer there. It was completely gone; only a few gravel bars were left to verify there had ever been a travel way through this passage between rows of trees. The outside bend on many of the stream meanders were now vertical. Yards and yards of soil were washed away to only God knows where. The erect eroded banks along the road would likely be rip-rapped in the future with large blasted boulders that would hold the bank and prevent the road from being washed out in the next storm. But the inside cuts, those from which trees and other vegetation was washed away would be likely left to the elements. Some of these banks will continue to erode over the next several hundred years until they reach an angle of about forty five degrees where herbs, grasses, shrubs, saplings, and eventually trees can root and hold the soils in place.

Tree bark stripped completely off of maple that fell into Taylor Brook during Irene.

On one stream bend there was a large tree caught in the center of the stream. It was an entire tree; roots, trunk, branches. The root ball became wedged between two large boulders. The tree was completely naked. Its leaves were gone, all of the bark stripped away on every surface, and the cambium beneath the bark stripped to the wood as if the tree were sand blasted. The power of the water during the storm, carrying loads of gravel and sand, had completely smoothed this tree so it looked like an artificial sculpture laying in the stream bed. The brightly colored light brown wood will, within a few months, turn to a steely gray. I was reminded that the power of water is nearly beyond my own personal comprehension.

Taylor Brook, which normally has an average stream channel span of about twelve to fifteen feet, has cut so much earth away that it is forty feet wide in places. Full grown trees hang precariously over the stream bed. The next ice or wind storm may be the final chapter for them. It will not take too much to persuade these trees to fall into or across the brook channel. Before the storm there were dozens of places where fallen trees crossed over the stream from bank to bank. All of these were washed away during the stream torrent, many were caught on downstream bridges and trash racks put in place upstream of the bridges after the storm of April in 1987.

As I walked along the road, awed by the damage of those crazy flows the previous day, I wondered how life in the stream channel fared. Taylor Brook has exceptionally clean water. It is the home to countless macroinvertebrates; hellgrammites, stonefly larvae, mayfly larvae, caddisfly larvae, dragonfly larvae, and numerous annelids. These critters are valuable parts of the stream ecosystem. They shred leaves, break down debris, are food for trout, and significantly contribute to clean the water found in this stream. The brook trout, a sensitive resident of these clean waters, is near the top of the food chain and lives in these streams migrating good distances up and down the free flowing waters seeking prey and refuge under cut banks, sunken logs, and boulders where gravel has been scoured away leaving cave-like features in the water beneath the lower surface of these huge rocks. Under normal circumstances these fast flowing streams on steep gradients are saturated with oxygen, have cold temperatures even in the summer months, and are not nutrient rich which makes them perfect habitat for members of the char family of which the brook trout is one. The turbid waters that are still flowing through this stream channel will settle out soon enough. It will be up to the nature to restore life to this brook. Time will be the most necessary ingredient. I am caught by this thought and reminded me of the common expression “time heals all”. My mind is boggled by the power and truth in this old adage.

I happened upon two large boulders side by side in the stream. These are new features at this location. The largest of the two was probably dislodged from the bank somewhere upstream. The smaller of the two was most likely rolled down the stream into its present location. Both stones are large chunks of quartzite. One is rose colored, nearly round, and about five feet in diameter. The other is an off-white color with splotches of gold and gray colors following the seams of cracks in the rock. It is oblong and about seven feet long and about four feet wide. It is striking that these two boulders are now adjacent in the center of the stream bed. Water rushes around both sides of each rock. An eddy forms in the space between the rocks. It may serve as future habitat for trout or Appalacian crayfish in this cold brook.

These large quartzite rocks were rounded by centuries of rolling against rough surfaces. Only during glacial times was there enough time, enough water, and enough raw force to spin these boulders into their rounded shapes. To the north of the stream there is a large kame terrace; a landform created by melting glaciers. This area of earth comprised of round boulders, cobbles, sand, and gravel overlays a thick band of glacial till; unsorted and compacted silt soil and rocks. The rushing waters have cut the stream bank vertically and you can see the contact area between the kame terrace soils and the till soils. Water from the heavy rains is perched on top of the dense silts and runs out of this vertical cut in a steady sheet flow that adds to the water in the brook.

Road damage two miles east where road is paved in Colrain

Cool, damp air drafted down the stream channel. It brushed my face and carried a silty scent. The noise of the rushing brook, still raging a day later but nothing in the scale of the day before, made me feel small and powerless. The human species sometimes overstates its position in the natural world. We think we are in control of this planet but ultimately we are not. This storm that we experienced is but a small expression of the power of nature.

And we would be well advised to take notice.

Damage on Taylor Brook Road (Heath Road in Colrain) where the flow was 300% of previous all time high flow measurement

Written for the Heath Herald in September of 2011.

  • craftygreenpoet

    Yes, Nature has awesome power!

  • Wild_Bill

    To be sure!

  • Barb

    Hi Bill, I could feel a bit of the power of that water and its chaos through your words and photos. The “brook” now looks like a raging river. The landscape has changed permanently. You were witness to Nature’s power.

  • Wild_Bill

    Yes, the power of nature is beyond awesome.  And because we are high up in the watershed our damage was nothing like those folks down gradient along the North River, Green River, and the primary Deerfield River.  Along stretches on those rivers homes, business, farms, and farm land are lost, some of it forever.

  • sandy

    I hate to see the damage, but would have loved to hear those boulders roll.  Were you blocked in by the water?  And how did your driveway fare?

  • Wild_Bill

    We were cut off from going anywhere for a day.  The town opened up one road out of town and then within a few days there were several open.  Our driveway is a steep hill.  It did not fare well.  My wife and I tried to put it  back together temporarily the day before I had back surgery (one day after the storm) with buckets and shovels it was good enough for a temporary fix.  Since then we’ve had 20 more inches of rain.  Its in very poor shape again.  Once the road is repaired we’ll get our driveway in good shape with the help of a bulldozer and some new material.

  • Mike B.

    I work for a local agency transportation department and we had a flood like this last January. Hearing boulders roll under floodwaters is an incredible sound. After the flood, we had to repair the road and first had to check to see if any endangered fish were within the work area (i.e. salmon). There were about 40 of them! Somehow they had survived.

  • Wild_Bill

    That’s good news about the fish survival.  I’m not too hopeful for these streams.  Most of the escape habitat was ruined during the storm and the furious conditions weren’t to hospitable for any living creature.  A few might have survived and will repopulate, but it will be a slow arduous process.  Last time it took about ten years before brook trout levels responded to those prior to the storm. 

  • Al

    You had as much rain from that storm as we get in a year. The damage is very impressive. We live at the very top of a stream, literally where it starts (we’re 100 feet from the top of the hill), and I’ve never seen anything like this.

  • Wild_Bill

    Officially on the FEMA 100 year flood predictions this was about a 250 year storm (should occur once every 250 years).  However, we have had four 100 year storms in the last 15 years so either the original predictions based on existing statistics were terribly wrong or climate change is going to wreak havoc with predictive rain models.  Very, very scary.

  • shoreacres

    A beautifully detailed post about an extraordinary event.

    In the Texas Hill Country, people speak of being “watered in”, much as northerners refer to being “snowed in”. Flash flooding is frequent, sometimes on this scale. More than a few people have learned to their chagrin that it doesn’t take much water flowing over a crossing to carry off a car. Weight-wise, it seems boulders and cars would be roughly equivalent.

    Because we’re on a coastal plain, we don’t get this kind of flooding, but we do have those hurricanes. Chaos hardly begins to describe it. I was in Pensacola after Hurricane Ivan and saw for myself an iconic sight: a 31′ Catalina sailboat neatly tucked into a tree, about 40′ above the ground. And I have the photos of a friend’s boat after Ike. They had triple-anchored in a channel off the intracoastal, near High Island, Texas. (How they ended up there is another story for another time.)

    When their last anchor chain gave way, the storm surge picked them up, carried them across three treelines and deposited them in a cane field, three miles north of the intracoastal. The boat was fine, and so were they – except they couldn’t get off the boat because of the alligators and snakes around them.

    Chaos? You betcha.

  • Wild_Bill

    Hurricanes and tornadoes wreak some of the most extraordinary chaos nature can manage.  Tsunami’s and volcanoes are probably every bit as bad. 

    I witnessed the results of a terrifically horrid hurricane in RI in about 1960.  The damage along the coast was absolutely catastrophic.  Almost more than my 9 year old mind could fathom!

  • Emily

    Amazing. I have a friend in Marlboro, Vermont, and her photos and descriptions of post-Irene damage were stunning, as well. I loved reading about this through your eyes and with your knowledge. Frightening, I’m sure, but also awe-inspiring. As you said, we are merely humans, aren’t we? We should never forget that we’re never in total control.

  • Wild_Bill

    Marlboro, VT is about 15 miles east and slightly north of where I live.  A beautiful place and the home of Marlboro College, a fine institution.  Yep, we are just humans, another simple species on this great planet, no less nor any more important than the rest of the ecosystem.  Thanks.

  • Wild_Bill

    Marlboro, VT is about 15 miles east and slightly north of where we live.  The home of Marlboro College, a fine college indeed.  Yep, we humans are just another cog in the ecological wheel, no more nor any less important, than any other part of Gaia.  We are no more in control than the blue algae in the ocean, a slab of granite in the White Mountains, or a grain of sand in the Gobi desert.  We only think we are!

  • Out Walking the Dog

    Extraordinary description, Bill. I know you’ll keep us posted on how the recovery goes for the plants and creatures affected by Irene. Oh, and I include YOU as one of the creatures.  I can’t believe you had back surgery the day after.

  • Wild_Bill

    The streams, heavily damages by Irene, near roads are receiving a lot of attention by various highway departments.  A lot of rock is being installed to prevent future erosion and road damage.  Unattended areas, however, will provide lessons in recovery by nature but it could foster years and years of erosion prior to plant recovery. 

    I needed back surgery even more after the storm than I did before it occurred.  Still on the mend and will be for quite some time.

  • IcyCucky

    Reading your writing, I’m envied with how you described everything so clearly and detailed. I feel as if I’m right there and reading your thoughts. Well, in a way I’m reading your thoughts, only you’ve written them out :-)

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you. I’m happy you enjoy these posts.  It is not too hard to write clearly when you’ve just experienced something.

  • Annie

    A great story. Reading it I could almost hear the cacophony of the waters as they coursed their reconstruction of the brook. Water is definitely one of natures finer carving tools. It definitely will be interesting to see how long it takes life to reestablish itself. Another good project to follow as the weeks, months and years roll by.

  • Wild_Bill

    Cacophony would be an excellent word to describe the noise in the stream that day, it reflects the chaotic event in terms of sound accurately.  Natural rehabilitation is slow and trial and error, much like any event in the natural world.  But following this will be a most unusual activity and one that I will surely appreciate.

  • Montucky

    Fascinating account about the power of natural forces! I’ve seen the force of water in our streams here during spring runoff but can’t imagine what they might look like after that kind of rainfall! There are many facets to nature; she can be a beautiful lady and she can also be overwhelmingly unforgiving and harsh. Marvelous though, always!

  • Wild_Bill

    Nature is awesome, in the true sense of the word, when it shows its power.  Human nature tends to want to just see one side of the pendulum’s swing.  The truth is it takes both the horror and beauty for the natural system to work.  From wild animals being eaten alive to a mother taking care of its young nature shows the beast and the beauty.  We just need to learn to look at it ALL from a different perspective.

  • Nature Drunk

    “The human species sometimes overstates its position in the natural world. We think we are in control of this planet but ultimately we are not.” Well said. Nice post, Bill.  

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you.  Ultimately we are just another species on this planet.  While its true we have the potential to impact the entire earth ecosystem it is also true that there is a tremendous responsibility that goes with that territory.  Something we seem to constantly forget.

  • Barbara

    What a marvelous essay – like many of your friends who have commented below, I too felt the earth shake and shiver with the rush of that boulder filled water. I heard the roar, felt the wind ans the chill of driving rain. An amazing experience and as you said Bill – one which should be a reminder that human-kind is only a speck on this earth. Gaia controls all – not our species which mistakenly believes it  is all-powerful.

    This is a great read my friend… a terrific description of a truly awesome experience. Thanks for sharing. Love the photos as well…and am so glad I now have a computer to be back on line to read your super musings. 

  • Wild_Bill

    Welcome back Barbara. Being without a computer for an extended time must have been frustrating for you.  Believe it or not, I was just trying to remember what it was like to not have one, and ended up thinking that it sounded rather pleasant. 

    Yes, our planet contains both beauty and rage, a balance I suppose, and when the rage is out it is a mind changing experience.  We are but little dandelion seeds blowing about in the wind.  We are lucky the earth lets us take up residence. 

    Oh my, a great idea for a story!

  • Jack Matthews

    I heard that the rainfall was record-breaking up there.  The damage to the road I hope is repaired quickly.

  • Wild_Bill

    The amount of rainfall over the six weeks following Irene was well over 40 inches.  It’s still raining every other day.  Makes me wonder what it would be like if this continued into winter.

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