Plucking Photos from the Trees

We were tired. We’d been working for hours. But there was still enough time in the day to do one more task. This one would be a give-a-away, a freebie, a pro-bono good deed that my employer, Warren Jacobs, wanted to make happen for his — for our — community.

I was happy because, instead of cutting trees down, we were about stand some up.

A Terrible Flood

Less than a week before, Hurricane Ida had become a tropical storm when she passed through, dumping almost nine inches of rain onto our region in a matter of hours. Puddles turned to rivulets that became swollen ditches that turned the quiet flow in small creeks to white-water rapids. The volume quickly overwhelmed every low-lying road, driveway, and yard. Curb to curb, the water that rushed down Main Street in Schwenksville traveled faster than the posted speed limit. Eventually, the Perkiomen Creek, to which all the land around me drains, reached a height of 24 feet, a stage never recorded before. In short, it was a terrible flood.

As my husband and I huddled in our dry home during the storm, far from any waterway, we watched for news about what was happening to people who weren’t so fortunate. Soon enough, the posts appeared online. First there was the video of water pouring into someone’s basement from the bottom of a window, like a mini-golf’s waterfall that was no fun at all. Later, my husband reported with shock and sorrow in his voice, “Entire homes along the Perkiomen have been completely washed away. They’re totally gone.”

I spent the next few days trying to believe the extent of the loss for so many of my neighbors. Cars that had been moved to high ground were filled with mud; high ground had not been high enough. Recently built, cement block stilts that had suspended a small, single home above the flood stage, stood alone at random angles, like the headstones in an abandoned cemetery. The house was erased from the scene. Across the road, a single, wooded, white wall of another home leaned against a tree, looking like part of a modular home that was waiting to be installed after the rest got delivered. In between, speed limit signs were flattened to the ground, their steel poles bent 90 degrees by the weight, force, and pressure of water that had since drained away. A lawnmower here, a random car there, a boat jammed into the trees.

Outside the remaining homes, people had heaped piles of soggy, muddy debris. The air held a slimy smell of Perkiomen Creek water combined with the contents of dumpsters and sewage plants. The smell was inescapable, even with my car windows closed.

Like a visitor at a funeral, I did not feel right taking pictures, so I have none to offer you now. In the shocking misery of the scene, feeling completely helpless, all I could do was honor privacy.

Floods weren’t new to many who experienced the worst of it. It’s a risk that comes with waterfront property. But this storm was different. Not only did it break flood records, its approach came without evacuation orders. And because it started pouring around 3pm, fretting commuters on flooded roads couldn’t get home to save even a single possession.

Then there was the non-waterfront trouble caused by the hours-long cloudburst. Folks who had “never seen anything like it” were now drying out for the very first time.

Our Workday’s Final Task

Years ago, a group of citizens in Lower Frederick Township planted two Hackberry trees in one of the municipality’s parks. The entire east boundary of Foy park fronts the Perkiomen Creek, so the Hackberry was a good choice. It can withstand a little abuse.

Foy Park Flood Damage

Lower Frederick Township slide from flood-damage presentation. The yellow arrow indicates the height to which the water rose at the playground. One Hackberry tree is circled in red, surrounded by rocks that were deposited by the flood.

Now almost two stories tall, both trees had been pushed to the ground by the flood. The canopies were tangled with driftwood, plastic bags, and other flood debris. But the root system on each was still intact; the trees were still attached to the ground. The plan was to upright them and stake out a few anchors for support.

My coworkers had the first tree up before I arrived. As they worked on the ropes, I decided to get quickly to work on the second in order to begin the tedious job of untangling the junk from the canopy while it was still close enough to the ground to reach. I held my breath as the dust dispersed from each clump; floodwater can get pretty toxic.

As I reached deeper into the tree, I stretched to grab a piece of white plastic. I soon realized I had found three, 5-by-7-inch pages of a photo album, an archive from the days before digital, when the print was all there was. Still in their plastic sleeves, I saw images of a little girl with a beaming smile. In one, she waved to the camera as she walked across a stage. In another she faced the camera, displaying her red and white sash that read, “Miss Apple Dumpling.”

I nearly cried. The irreplaceable contents of people’s lives had been scattered across a miles-long scene of devastation, and I had been thinking about that fact a lot. Now I held an example in my hand.

Less than an hour later, I gave each Hackberry tree a pat on the uprighted trunk as we departed from a job well done. It was up to them now; we had done all we could. Their survival didn’t just mean our ecosystem would retain two important habitat trees, it could serve as a symbol of resilience, examples of what can happen when and if help arrives in time, of what happens when life lends a little support to life.

Me, my co-workers, and our back-saving Ditch Witch standing next to the first Hackberry. Photo by Warren Jacobs.

Brian and me, next to the tree in which the photos were found. Photo by Warren Jacobs.

Return to the Owner

Since my husband is on Facebook and I am not, knowing that he too was disjointed by the permanent loss around us, I asked him to post the photos in an attempt to find their owner. It didn’t take long. Soon he had an appointment to meet her nearby to turn over the three simple shots. When he returned, he said she told him that the album had been stored in her garage. The owner was the young adult in one of the photos. It showed her sitting next to Miss Apple Dumpling, well dressed in a gown, a sparkling tiara on her head. Glenn said, “She’s older now.” He guessed she was now near to our age, still recognizable from the photo, like a mirror to the advancement of years.

Just three simple photos; reminders of the past, stolen back from the thief who tried to hide them in a tree. The subjects cannot go back to the time of childhood innocence or youthful beauty. Yet, we hold on to the memory, as if doing so might mean that we could. But what happens now? Do we pretend we can go back to living as we did before? Or do we accept that change has come?

4 thoughts on “Plucking Photos from the Trees”

  1. I’ve always enjoyed your musings.
    I was trying to get to a dinner across the creek that night. After attempting to cross from Perkiomenville to Graterford I went back home disappointed.
    Thanks for putting that disappointment into perspective.

  2. Oh my goodness, Ruth! You are like Lois Lane as a reporter. Thanks for publishing the events of disaster in Schwenksville and surroundings. It’s hard to watch homes, wildlife, greenery being swept away and weeping by families who have lost so much. Your enthusiasm, love and support of our Earth is always encouraging. Kudos to those who cared, assisted and gave back a lovely memorial of photos to a young woman. Thank you Glenn and Ruth. I admire you immensely!

    BTW, the Hackberry trees looking like they’re gonna make it. Well done, soldiers!

  3. Ruth,
    Thank you for keeping fresh in our minds the devastation and loss that can come to all living things in a flood; AND thank you for reminding us how we can all come together to help each other rebuild and regrow.

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