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A Creative Piece: The Chattanooga Tornado
Anika Iqbal

The storm treated the trees the same way it did the houses. It destroyed things selectively, leaving our neighbors puzzling over how some houses could stand unscathed, while others a few doors down had crumbled into piles of rubble. We looked at what was left and offered up comments that praised good bones and the sturdiness of brick walls; but in front of those who could not thank their houses for standing, we only averted our eyes from the damage and extended vapid offers to lend unhelpful hands. But unless you had a time machine or an incredible amount of money, you couldn’t do much about the scene. You could only watch electrical workers and displaced residents crawling the neighborhoods like ants, dragging the flattened, shattered, or waterlogged remains of their lives to the curb for the garbage trucks to come take away.

Similarly, some trees had fallen all at once and had taken up their roots and the earth with them. Others had their upper halves wrenched away by the wind, leaving a variety of splintered half-trees pointing jaggedly at the sky, as if to ask the heavens where the rest of their bodies were. And—just like you could look at a house stripped of its shingles and recognize in its posture that it withstood the storm determinedly—you can see in the handful of trees that weren’t torn apart or twisted out of the ground, although they had all lost their leaves to whipping winds, that they were naked, but nonetheless thankful to be upright.

ne such tree timidly guards the property of a church on Igou Gap Road, where religious locals and sympathetic people began to gather to go volunteer. Rather than convening in the mutilated building, we clustered at the base of the small birch, setting up tents and stationing ourselves there. The flat mulch over its roots became the home base for volunteers who were sent into neighborhoods on foot. They would touchdown right at the tree’s trunk (only about a foot in diameter) to deliver news of blocked roads or supply requests to our directors. But no one really payed much attention to the tree itself; it was almost instinctual of us to set up there. But one time, I looked back to its branches before beginning my walk home and noticed that they were comically windswept towards the street, much like the hair of a cartoon character who had just faced some sort of explosion.

The little birch soon became familiar. It was almost like a part of the crew that was, by that time, assembling daily to hand out supplies and help rebuild. Every day at eleven, we’d subconsciously convene between its trunk and the driveway, split up into teams, and continue laboring until 6 p.m. When it was time to go home, we said our goodbyes under its branches, almost as though we couldn’t scatter to our cars or the sidewalks unless we ended the day where we had begun it. The tree observed as we evolved from a group of strangers, each with our own vague ideas of how to put ourselves to use, to an organized operation that was receiving donations from the Red Cross. It cycled through the day with us, thinking of sleep and work to be done in the mornings and, in the evenings, allowing us to rest our grimy and groaning bodies against its trunk.

The tree and our nearby tents, remaining in one place day after day, first drew curious eyes and later became a part of the landscape. Construction workers and other people who drove past us every day began to wave from their car windows, making me realize for the first time how impressive the memories of our little town’s residents are. People put names to faces quickly, and soon we were sitting with the EPB men when we ate our packed lunches. They gave us C-masks to protect our sunburned faces, and we gave them cases of water. Every time we would see each other afterwards, our hellos always felt more like thank-yous. Even the richer, unaffected members of the church would adopt a sort of blue-collar sense of respect. All of the policemen, electrical and construction workers, and volunteers stirred the ruined area with a daily effort and brought it back to life. The carnage remained, but it was surrounded now by people who worked passionately despite its presence. Reflective vests, bright blue rain tarps, and colorful, hand-made signs directing people towards the church accented the dull, gray-brown blanket of debris that the storm had thrown over the neighborhood. And, by the end of the work period, we were used to seeing not only fractured houses and felled trees, but also each other’s tired smiles.

Within that week and a half, we had also become accustomed to circling around a certain birch. On the last day of volunteering, a 9-year old kid named Connor and I leaned up against its trunk one final time. We were the youngest two people there, so we listened while we chatted, in case one of the adults called our names or assigned us a task. We slowly began to realize, though, that when we walked away from the tree, we would have no reason to go back, and we tethered ourselves to it for this reason. The longer we stayed there, the more time I took to register the tree’s silent and assigned significance. By the time it had fully hit me, I had picked a branch already, intertwined my fingers over its flaky bark, and kicked my way into the tree’s arms. Connor, who was too short and too scared to join me, sat below in the dirt. Through the twigs, I could see holes in roofs and strewn electrical wires littering the roads and people’s yards. The humidity shimmered and blurred the silhouettes of men in bucket trucks, who worked in front of a blushing sky.

he tree’s seemingly unimpressive height lifted my eyeline enough to allow me to see far over the flattened landscape. In the air, you could see everything. You could see everything, from the roof tiles embedded in dirt to the workers who were strolling home. You could see how they carried themselves, knowing that they could only restore the town by working their hardest and accepting the rest. It squared their shoulders, raised their heads, and made their bones buzz with purpose. The whole town walked like that for a while. We had all anchored ourselves to the protection that that kind of dutifulness offers; we assembled ourselves in teams by its trunk every morning. We rotated around its base to say goodnight to one another, letting our words waft through its branches and take the form of a “thank-you” when they reached the stars.

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