Rachel Kippen, Our Ocean Backyard

A eucalyptus tree that fell through a multi-unit housing complex during February 2024 storms. (Courtesy Rachel Kippen)

A few weeks ago on a Saturday my husband left town for a work trip. His plane took off just a couple hours before Santa Cruz County was inundated by yet another rainstorm. “I always seem to leave right when the weather turns the corner,” he joked. This forecast deluge was to be accompanied by high winds. Despite knowing better, I decided not to prepare. I live in a multi-unit complex, I share walls with neighbors, I am outside of a flood zone. I’m probably safe, I thought to myself. “We might lose power,” I told Jim on the phone while he sat at his gate between connections. “I’ll be fine.”

The rain came down through the night and the next morning I walked my dog to the coast. The ocean was chocolate milk. Wind bursts carried piles of leaves and debris and drew them into curling spirals along the sidewalk and street gutters. I enveloped my dog football-style under my armpit and retreated into the safety of our apartment. Come late afternoon, branches and seed pods flung into our windows and bounced across the roof.

The power flickered and went out. The unit fell silent and pitch black. Howling air streamed through the thin cracks under the door and rattled the screens on our deck, effortlessly tossing our hanging wetsuits over the fence. I slipped out the side door to the covered area where my husband’s Westfalia is parked and clambered into the back and under the seat cushions searching for battery-powered lanterns. Another gust rushed under the van. For a moment I worried the car would lift. “God you’re an idiot,” I muttered to myself. I’ve lived through hurricanes, but apparently you’d never know it.

Eucalyptus trees dot the manicured landscape of my housing complex. Two massive eucalyptuses are rooted just outside my front door. They’re lovely during blue skies. I often write while staring out the window at their camouflaged trunks, watching treecreepers hunt their peeling bark crevices for insects. A pair of red-tailed hawks made their home in our trees last spring. Most nights I can hear the hoots of great horned owls in their canopy.

Introduced from Australia, dense and fast-growing eucalyptus trees were planted by the thousands in California beginning in the 1800s. Driven by the booming demand for construction materials during the California Gold Rush for structures, rail ties, ships, and even fuel, investors had high hopes that the trees would provide a get-rich-quick business opportunity. Stands of eucalyptus were planted along the coast, somewhat ironically, to serve as windbreaks.

Back in the safety of my bedroom, I heard a loud crash so jarring I thought a tree went through the living room. A branch of the eucalyptus ripped off and tumbled into the nearby brush. Another sustained gust of wind shook the walls, this one like a train barreling toward us. Our kitchen table is small but sturdy and as far as one can get from the trees near our front door. I tucked underneath it with my dog. Am I overreacting? I questioned myself. Sometimes during an emergency it’s a fun pastime to gaslight yourself. Another explosive crack. This time followed by a scream. Then sirens.

Tasmanian blue gums, Eucalyptus globulus, can grow upward of 150 feet. Rainfall the week prior to the windstorm saturated the soil, the ground became softer, and roots had a harder time holding their footing, especially in the face of unseasonably high winds pushing against a heavy, tall tree. This particular atmospheric river and bomb cyclone were supercharged by El Nino and climate change.

Eucalyptus tree segments removed post February 2024 storm. (Courtesy Rachel Kippen.)

When the intervals of gusts finally subsided, I rushed to my bedroom window. My neighbor’s unit was smothered under the canopy of a fallen tree. A eucalyptus over 100 feet tall had fully uprooted, its trunk knifing through a four-plex two doors down. While there were no casualties, units remain unlivable today. Police officers walked door to door with flashlights in the rain evacuating neighbors under the tree’s footprint. I did not comprehend the extent of the damage until daybreak. Though it remained standing, I walked around the eucalyptus next to my house with great reverence for the next several days. I still don’t look at it the same.

So much changed over the course of one weekend. On Friday there were hummingbirds and monarchs in our eucalyptus. By Monday, workers with cranes and wood chippers sawed and lifted segments of the fallen trees and ground them into mulch piles. These small mountains now dot our lawn like the cremated remains of what never should have been. It’s difficult to blame an invasive tree, or even place blame on those who eagerly planted those trees more than a century ago.

The change in climate change is not solely measured by increasing storms, rising seas, and rising temperatures. Change includes the new reality of our morphed physical environments. The falling of trees, the disappearing of beaches, the crumbling of coastal scenic drives, the loss of our usual hangouts and familiar haunts. Change includes the mental gymnastics of deciding to shelter under a kitchen table, the calculation of risk, the flights and the fights. It includes the letting go of cemented attachments and ideas we cling to about places and about things. It requires an acceptance of impermanence.

Octavia Butler wrote “The Parable of the Sower” in 1993. The science fiction novel describes a post-apocalyptic future earth ravaged by unchecked corporate greed, political unrest, wealth inequality, and climate change. That future earth was set in the year 2024. The group of survivors that band together to forge a new path religiously believe in the power of change. “All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change.” Now is as good a time as any to read Butler’s book.

Eucalyptus tree wood chip mulch from fallen trees in February 2024. (Courtesy Rachel Kippen)

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