Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Late Night Horror From Above

It was a busy Easter weekend here at the farm. Our major projects were fence building and outdoor planting. In each of these projects we were joined by about a half-dozen members of our CSA who came to help. Last evening as the shadows grew long and stretched across our fields, Janet, Gwynne and I sat in the dirt transplanting the very last of two thousand red and yellow onion seedlings. We were sore, dirty, sunburned and tired but feeling satisfied with our accomplishments of the past days.

Gwynne is a fellow Master Gardener and a valued advisor. As she was departing for the evening she expressed concern that the little onion seedlings were very dry and would need to be watered if they were to survive. I assured her that I planned to water them before going to bed, saying that I would be out here in the field until late watering them by the light of my trusty headlamp.

In the twilight, Janet and I rounded up the last of the tools that had been scattered by the weekend's activity. As we worked, we discussed the likelihood that the thundershowers that were forecast to pass through our area overnight would be sufficient to water the onion seedlings. Referring to the western clouds highlighted in the sunset, she pointed out that it appeared that we would get rain. Despite the looming clouds, my worry that the plants would never make it if the rain merely blew over led me to decide that I would be staying up to water them anyway just in case.

She wished me luck and headed upstairs for a shower and bed. I plopped down for a few moments on the couch in the basement to check my email and rest a bit before heading back out to the field. I was exhausted and very sore from a cracked rib and pinched nerve in my back that had been nagging at me all weekend. Predictably, as I sat there reading my email, my eyelids began to droop. In my mind the usual conversation began as one part impotently urged me that there were still tasks to be done while the other won out with the oft repeated refrain...."I'll just close my eyes for a few minutes...."

Hours later I was stirred from my uncomfortable slumber by a deep, rhythmic and insistent "whump, whump, whump, whump" sound that I could not identify. I opened my eyes to a world filled with confusing noises. As I grimaced from the pain of pulling myself upright against the protest of my rib, my mind grappled to make sense of what was happening. Finally coming upright and somewhat awake, my mind announced its conclusion that a jumbo jet was roaring by overhead. By the volume of the sound, it could not have been clearing the roof by more than a few feet.

Right away I began to find problems with the explanation that my mind had reached. The primary issue was that although it did sound just like a jet engine at very close range, complete with the high pitch whining sound that you would hear on the tarmac of a large airport, it did not seem to be fading away. Instead it seemed to be stationary, as if suspended there in the sky.

Without my glasses I staggered to the basement doors and cautiously swung one of them out into the darkness. What greeted me was a scene of murky and unfocused fury. The wind was absolutely howling. The jet engine sound roared down from overhead accompanied by what I can only describe as the sound of the very sky being ripped open. From out in the dark I could hear crashes and bangs of things being hurled about. I remember calming myself by thinking that there was no use in fretting about the damage and that I would just take it in stride and begin repairs in a morning.

I turned my head to the north and concluded that the whumping sound that had awoken me was my steel-framed tractor tent whipping in the gale-force wind and slowly tearing itself apart. In the light flooding out of the basement doorway I could see the trays of green onions that were waiting to be planted and saw that they were about to blow away. Having nursed them along from seeds since January, I quickly decided that I should retrieve them into the relative safety of the basement.

I stepped into the wind and focused on the task of moving the trays. I really can't say that I had woken sufficiently to think that the storm might be a tornado, nor did it occur to me that perhaps I should wake everyone else and move them to a safer part of the house. As it turns out, they were all awake as well and sitting up in their beds equally confused about the source of the bizarre noises.

When I was about halfway through the task of moving trays, I became aware that the sound overhead had shifted and was no longer directly overhead. I straightened and stood there in the doorway looking up into the dark and featureless sky. As I listened, the sound passed over the back yard and then over our forested acreage to the east.

I had the impression that the source of the sound was narrow, as if it was only a few hundred yards wide. In my immediate vicinity the wind suddenly died away and a calm descended. Out over the trees, the roaring sound continued to move away to the east. It left me with the impression of a huge train speeding away on a track just above the treetops. I stood there listening for a while longer as the noise receded. By the time the sound had moved a mile or so downrange, the peepers resumed their courtship cacophony as if nothing had happened.

I turned on our outdoor floodlights and sulked about for a while expecting to find terrible damage. For one, I was positive that the chicken coop had received some broken windows and perhaps worse. I was also quite sure that we had lost a portion of our new roof. To my surprise, very little damage was evident, mostly loose chairs and trashcans had gone flying.

Before lying back down I checked my favorite weather website to see if any tornado warnings had been issued. The National Weather Service showed nothing more than a severe thunderstorm. I even consulted the online data log from a weather station about a mile from our house and found that the winds had not exceeded 30 miles per hour at that site. That confirmed my impression that whatever it was that passed overhead was very localized.

In the end I'm happily left with no serious repairs to undertake and little more than a strange experience to relate. In the worst of it, I had imagined the wind scouring the fields and killing every one of those little seedlings that we had spent so many hours planting. Instead, they greeted the morning sunrise well-watered by the storm and seemingly happy in their new home.
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