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A dark and stormy night

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

It was on a dark and stormy night last week that the tree broke and came to rest in the rear cockpit of our dry-docked trawler.

That expression, “It was a dark and stormy night,” says it all, conjuring evil and mystery and cold bones on cobbled streets. More interesting than: “Severe thunderstorms will blow through Peachtree City this evening. Ho hum.”

The wind blew from right to left, very intense, and the rain pelted almost like hail. I worried about a hanging basket of pansies and the hanging light in the screen porch. Every windstorm we have, I worry about that Tiffany-style lamp coming down with a crash, but for 27 years here, plus seven on Pebblestump Point, it hadn’t happened, and it was barely swinging on this night.

When we built this house, we put it as far back on the lot as possible and reiterated to our builder that we didn’t want one tree taken out that wasn’t absolutely necessary. The plan succeeded, and now we have almost total tree cover (read: shade) except for the exact footprint of the house and deck.

Shortly after we moved in, a hefty pine fell between the screen porch and the kitchen garden I used to keep. It could have landed on the porch or on the garden, but it came down without touching anything important.

Friends and neighbors have taken down many a tree they feel might crash onto their roofs or landscaping, and I believe they are more comfortable on dark and stormy nights, thinking they’ve made their world a little safer.

We nod pleasantly, but I don’t believe for a minute that any of our trees are just marking time before they come a-calling, up close and personal. Our lot is on a small hill and there are trees from the top of the hill to the pond below.

We’ve never had even a close call. I credit the slope with deflecting the winds. Just wind-throw of dead twigs and leaves, nothing we can’t live with.
Not until last week, when the rain fell in torrents.

We never heard it fall, but discovered it when we went out the next morning to check potential damage. “It” was a tall sweet gum tree, wrenched so violently that its 25-inch trunk split about 20 feet above the ground, the tree falling to earth between our lot and the next. Its roots are still in the ground on the city’s green space, and about a quarter of the lightest branches and leaves came to rest in the little boat.

A smaller tree, an oak, I believe, was borne down by its neighbor. It will probably not recover because it has been down too long to recover its upright position without the ministrations of an arborist.

The rotten hollowed-out tree that an owl nested in two years ago still stands within the gap left by the shadow of the sweet gum, yet did not fall.

Who knew you could have a tree land in your boat in your own backyard? Fortunately when Dave climbed up the ladder he found no damage, and cut away small branches until the tree could slide down the sides of the hull.

When I started to think about this column, my mind was taken by the dark and stormy phrase, but I couldn’t find the connection. So I looked at the context from which it comes. It would seem that the language moguls of the world derided the use of florid, gushing prose – “purple prose” – that popular novelists produced in the 19th century.

According to several sources, including this from Wikipedia:

“Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (25 May 1803 – 18 January 1873), was an English politician, poet, playwright, and prolific novelist. He was immensely popular with the reading public and wrote a stream of bestselling novels which earned him a considerable fortune. So much that, since 1982, an annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has been sponsored by the English Department of San José State University, Calif. Contestants are required to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

Bulwer-Lytton became the poster child of Victorian melodrama, of which his many works provide numerous examples. This style has long been out of fashion and is considered kitsch and risible, Wikipedia notes.

His 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, begins:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
Read that again. It becomes more delicious as it melts on the tongue.

Wait. There’s more, also from Bulwer-Lytton’s pen.

“The great unwashed.” Coined for Paul Clifford, this one comes back to us as hoi polloi, the lower classes. “Corporations fear the day that the great unwashed will throw off their shackles of consumerism….”

“Pursuit of the almighty dollar.” From Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, 1871.

“The pen is mightier than the sword.” Many paraphrases, like 4th century Euripides’ “The tongue is mightier than the blade.”

Not a bad legacy for a writer whose name you probably did not know.

Not bad at all.

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