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Ophelia’s cries, groans and lulls

Outdoor Living

John Shelley tracks the passing of Ophelia from his home near Lough Carra, and counts his blessings

It was at 18:57, Sunday evening, when the front door, imperfectly hapsed, swung open to admit a warm breath. I moved to close it, but stood a while in the opening to take in the strange and suddenly windless silence. The big beech at the roadside seemed frozen in time, etched darkly against an early dusk. A single leaf fell from a high bough, flickering gold in this October gloaming.
Rooks came flighting overhead, making their way home to elm and oak, chattering among themselves. Do they know of Ophelia, hunched over the Atlantic? The bare branches in which they roost will hardly keep them safe tonight, not once that giant wind-spring unfurls across the land to wreak who-knows-what havoc.
That breeze has gone. Warm and slightly muggy air presses in from all around – it feels as if the world has caught it’s breath; the calm before the storm. I feed the stove an armful of logs, find candles, matches, and an extraordinary book – Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The House on the Strand’. I am, I feel, ready.
20:00 hrs. I peer outside into deep grey. Wings flap heavily from across the road. Other then that, the only sound is that of a distant, persistent, almost desperate barking. Could such a calm evening really give way to the kind of chaos we are promised?
22:00 hours. Outside the air is thick, rich with autumn scent and so, so still. A thin drizzle wets and drips. An October night, no more.
03:00 Monday. Awoken by the sound of a passing train. There are no trains nearby; it is wind tearing at the trees and driving broken clouds before it, until an uncertain calm descends once more. Night sounds drift through the open window: the reassuring softness of padded feet; waders calling over the water; the snuffling grunt of a hunting hedgehog and an occasional riffling breeze on leaves.
07:00 and the first pale light of dawn. The sky, smoggy yellow, becomes blue. There must have been wind, for the road is littered with beech mast and finches, come to feed where passing traffic has crushed woody shells to expose the nutritious nut within.
11:00 hrs and nothing has changed. Two minutes of torrential rain blow northwest and now we have an eerie calm. I fetch more wood – might as well keep warm. I wonder idly how conditions are along the coast. There is something majestic about those ravenous waves that visit to devour headlands and reshape our coastline. We have friends overlooking the fringe of Clew Bay, watching and waiting.
13:30 hrs and still we wait. Thousands of people up and down the country are without power, with many rural folk effectively cut off from civilisation. Our electrical supply, at the end of a rather long and fragile line, continues to hold out, although it seems only a matter of time before that must change. Ophelia is almost upon us. A veritable gale cuts in from the east yet is overthrown by a powerful westerly gust. Can the tall trees that surround us withstand this rocking to and fro?
The convolutions of wind give rise to a mini tornado and an eight-foot funnel of leaves explodes into instant calm. What now, in this strange moment? Rain, lashing first one way and then the other. I feel compelled to walk as far as the lake.
14:20 hrs. I did walk, and make a bedraggled return to the warmth and comfort of my kitchen. Email comes from North Carolina, where friends offer encouragement from afar. There are trees down in the woods, their roots torn from the rocky soil that held them half a century and more. Lough Carra has itself become a mini mountain range, with white-crested waves overtopping each other.
If Ophelia blows herself out from the east the few remaining boats will be safe at their moorings; should she veer to the north it might be a different matter. Even now the powerful gusts of morning are more pronounced and sustained. Rather than being surprised at trees coming down, I’m amazed they can stay up.
A tremendous squall hits the house. The roof creaks and groans as the wind roars briefly, then fades once more. An hour to go before Ophelia’s eye stands overhead, then an evening of powerful westerlies to bring down trees already weakened from the east. Another mini tornado gathers an armful of leaves and flings them high into the air. What must it be like beneath a category 5 hurricane?
16:30 hrs and we are grateful for the belt of trees that have kept the worst of the wind away. I should cook now, before our storm gathers her evening strength. An apparent lull might prove misleading.
21:00, Monday night. Bats fly beyond the porch light, gleaning autumn moths around the pale bulb. Ophelia, dashing, runs ahead and beyond with her whip. As with so many others, what next, we wonder?
Tuesday morning brings gentle sunshine, as if to make amends. I set out from home and drive into town, past fields where quiet cattle graze between hedgerows lined with newly spun, dew-spangled webs. We haven’t fared too badly, although sad reports from around the country remind us to count our blessings.
My finches welcome me home with a brown-feathered wave. Above them a solitary speckled wood butterfly spirals at sunlit hazel. Of such fragile things our world is made.