The chain saw screams as it hits the wood, then slides through the first few branches as if they were butter.  I toss them aside, and Jacob and Stephen each grab hold of one, dragging it, struggling, over to the gate and out onto the driveway.  It has been two weeks since the storm, but I hadn’t been able to borrow a chain saw until yesterday; even now, the only ones on the shelves of the hardware stores are electric.  Four days without power has convinced me that a noisy, smoky, gas-guzzling chain saw is the only way to go.

Here on East State Street, at our old house, city crews have already picked up the debris that our former neighbors had dragged to the curb.  It’s one of the few places in Rockford that seems to have returned to normal, as long as you don’t glance up at the jagged tops of the trees lining the main east-west route through the Forest City.  Keep your eyes on the ground, and the only sign of the storm is the occasional patch of dead grass between the sidewalk and the curb, turned brown and yellow by the weight of the debris—that, and the ever-increasing mound of branches in our driveway.

The storm had arrived around 4:17 A.M. on Saturday, July 5—not unexpectedly, but with a ferocity that no one could have predicted.  I woke to the sound of the pounding rain, grabbed my glasses, and looked out of the third-story window at the foot of the bed.  The constant lightning—a bolt every second or so—should have lit up the sky like daylight, but it took me a moment to realize that I couldn’t see very far; the rain formed an impenetrable wall.  Another moment, and I could make out the branches of our neighbors’ towering oak, as they swung on an ever-increasing arc, ending their westward journey by slamming against the wall above and below the window.  One more, and I was out of bed and down the stairs, away from the flailing oak and the huge, half-dead maple standing at the southwest corner of the house, right between the barrelling winds and our freshly shingled roof.

Downstairs, the roar of the winds made the silence of the house almost palpable.  Amy and the children were spending the week in Michigan, so I rode out the storm in solitude.  When the winds subsided and the rain changed to a soft pitter-patter, I climbed back up the stairs and into bed, grateful that the house was still standing and that the dead maple was, too.

I awoke late to the sound of chain saws and, looking out into the bright sunlight, realized just how deep my gratitude should have been.  Up and down Cumberland Street, in front of our new house, our neighbors wandered through the branches lying across the road.  Out back, the dead maple still stood (only one small limb had fallen to the ground), but the top of our neighbors’ maple lay in the rear of our yard, the trunk turned 180 degrees and butting up against the side of our garage.

Over here at the old house, we have fared much worse.  The entire top of the maple behind the garage snapped off, and the backyard is packed with debris.  I can barely squeeze between the treetop and the garage; on the other side, 30 feet away, the wood presses up against the fence.  Our 20-foot redbud tree is a mangled mess, crushed by the falling maple.  Amazingly, the garage emerged unscathed, even though it stands between the tree and where the top fell.

As I continue to slice away at the branches, I realize that the trunk has landed right where I planted the English oak that Mark Dahlgren gave me three years ago.  I had promised to let him dig it up if we ever sold our house, but when we told his wife back in early May that we were moving, he was afraid it would not transplant well that late in the spring.  Now, sadly, it appears to be too late.

I’m not the only one still at work; the cleanup will continue for another few weeks.  Most Rockfordians spent the first few days after the storm coping with the loss of power; over 80,000 homes were left without electricity.  (Aaron Wolf and his family, living close to Rockford Memorial Hospital, got their power back rather quickly, but they spent the day chopping up walnut branches and an elm tree that had barely missed their van.)  My wife and children had returned that Saturday afternoon, and we spent the night on the front porch, with a citronella candle and a battery-powered radio, listening to the Grand Ole Opry.  Sunday night on the porch, we jumped up at every sound of traffic, until finally, around 10:00 P.M., two ComEd cherry-pickers rolled down the street, to a hearty round of cheers.  It would be another 18 hours before power was restored to our neighborhood and another three days before the entire city came back online, courtesy of electrical workers from as far away as Kansas City and Houston.  At one point, a day and a half after the storm, a convoy of ComEd trucks over a mile long was sighted on the tollway from Chicago to Rockford.

There’s still no reliable estimate of how many trees were lost and how much property was damaged (though, considering the scope of the former, the latter seems mercifully small), but we now know what caused the destruction: in-line winds of 80 miles per hour, gusting up to 100.  It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon, listening to WNTA’s heroic round-the-clock coverage (it was the only radio or TV station to devote its airwaves solely to helping folks weather the storm’s fallout), that I realized that, despite the constant (and very close) lightning, I had heard no thunder.  The winds had drowned it out—or perhaps blown it away.  Only then did I understand how so many could claim to have slept through the entire storm.

After five hours in the 90-degree heat, the end is in sight.  The chain has been dulled, and the wood bears burn marks where the saw has passed through.  I make the final cut, shut off the chain saw, and stand for a moment in the Sunday-afternoon silence.  Wiping my brow, I lean over and pick up the last two logs.  As I toss the second one onto the woodpile, the leaves carpeting the ground at my feet come alive, and the English oak rises slowly from the grave.  After two weeks flattened to the ground, it is bent, bowed, scarred, but not broken.  Mother Nature is tenacious, even more so than man.