- - Monday, April 4, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THIRTY-EIGHT: THE HURRICANE THAT TRANSFORMED NEW ENGLAND

By Stephen Long

Yale University Press, $27.50, 251 pages, illustrated

As Stephen Long, founder and former editor of Northern Woodlands magazine, has written extensively on forestry and lives in a wooded area of Vermont, it is not surprising that trees are his particular focus in this impassioned look back at the ferocious hurricane that struck New England on Sept. 21, 1938. This is apparent right at the beginning of “Thirty-Eight: The Hurricane That Transformed New England”:

“Almost every word that has been written about the 1938 hurricane recounts the damage to the built environment and to the people who lived in it. It has been an urban story rather than a rural one, a tale of the coast rather than the inland forest. That’s understandable. Compared with the loss of human life and the destruction of property, damage to trees might seem like a scratch on the fender of a car that’s been totaled. Still, our lives depend — either directly or indirectly — on forests, and the destruction of a thousand square miles of forestland remains a story that needs to be told.”

It’s always good to encounter a book that looks at a historical event in a new way, but readers need not fear that Mr. Long is one of those writers who cannot see the whole story, the big picture, for the forest or the trees. They may be his passion, but they are not his King Charles’ Head obsession:

“In ‘Thirty-Eight’ I tell the story through a number of lenses: forest ecology, meteorology, social science, political science, and land management. An event of this magnitude requires a multifaceted narrative . Ecology and economy have never been wound more tightly together.”

His insights are even more multifarious than this list implies, for instance, employing the analogy of a right-handed baseball pitcher’s snap of his wrist to produce a clockwise curveball to illustrate the trajectory of a hurricane traveling up from Cape Hatteras to Long Island and New England a la 1938. And although some readers’ eyes might begin to glaze over occasionally at all the forestry, there are plenty of surprising points of light to enliven what might have been too dry a narrative on so many grave topics. Like this one he gives us, after bemoaning no more than half-seriously that his name isn’t one of the S names that currently rotate for hurricanes’ monikers:

“If your name is Xerxes or Quentin, you’re totally out of luck, because there are no named hurricanes with the initial letters of Q, U, X, Y, or Z.”

Mr. Long is too good a writer, his wit too nimble and his prose too sparkling to write a book that can be dull for very long.

Of course, he does indeed also understand the importance of the human factor in this story, why indeed the focus of most accounts of that 1938 perfect storm has been on just how terrifying it was for those unfortunate enough to endure the brunt of its fury. There’s meteorology galore and climatological explanations aplenty of why it formed and struck the way it did nearly 80 years ago, like the information that “not all cyclones are tropical.” But Mr. Long has taken the trouble to speak “to dozens of octogenarians who remember the day as if it were yesterday. Whether they were four or fourteen, most of them speak of the incessant scream of the wind. Any time Thirty-Eight comes up in conversation, they live through the wind all over again,” he writes. Thanks to their eyewitness testimonies, we kind of get to feel that wind, just as the writer who has gathered them makes us perceive where it came from and why.

“Thirty-Eight,” like so many historical books, is also a cautionary tale about the future, and Mr. Long sounds his warning with characteristic punch:

“Count on it. Someday, another hurricane of Thirty-Eight’s magnitude will hit New England. Even though it has happened only three times in five centuries — in 1635, 1815, and 1938 — meteorologists and ecologists view New England hurricanes as normal but rare. Normal means another corker can arrive any day now. Rare means we needn’t bother spending every August through November prowling with an eye out to sea, because statistically it could just as easily hold off until the next century. That level of uncertainty makes planning for it impossible.”

You see here the common-sense approach which stops his thoughtful effusion from being just another shrill cry of alarm, and which leavens his informed concerns about how changes in factors from population and urban growth to climate change might make the next superhurricane even more damaging. Compared to those of us who live in under the threat of another kind of Big One — earthquakes — which we can, up to a point, prepare for through building codes, New Englanders do seem more helpless, for as Mr. Long concludes his text, they can only fear — or hope to escape — “that day [when] nature will make mankind feel puny.”

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Ca.

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