Nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum. Confronted by any sudden or unexpected absence she rises, turns and looks about, seeking remedy, overcome by her own irrepressible urges to fill, replenish and restore.
Ironically for coastal dwellers, it’s Nature herself who often empties out their lives by means of great, unpredictable weather systems that arrive complete with names and histories. The storms are spoken of so often and with such familiarity they could be members of the family: Carla. Andrew. Gustav. Hugo. Ivan. Gilbert. Opal. Katrina. Rita. Some are massive, maintaining their destructive momentum for hundreds of miles. Others are smaller, with more localized effects, but all arrive as harbingers of emptiness, desolation and loss.
Galveston’s most recent losses came courtesy of Ike, a storm apparently determined to consume not only a city but an entire coastline. In some places, he left great piles of debris – homes, boats and businesses splintered and collapsed, heaped up and tumbled down, a beach-comber’s horror.
In other places, entire communities were swept out to sea or washed into the bays. Houses were swallowed whole, cars washed out of parking lots and people carried away, never to be seen again. Filled with debris or swept clean of life, the path of the storm was clearly visible: a wound, a void, a vacuum waiting to be filled.
In the midst of so much human loss and suffering, Nature was forced to confront her own emptiness. Long after the storm had passed, both daylight and dark resonated with an eerie and distressing silence. No songbirds twittered in the brush. No fish slapped the surface of the darkening water, no startled heron squawked its disapproval of unexpected midnight walkers. No insect buzzed, no seagull took wing. The tiny lizards that shelter in the hibiscus, the ubiquitous ants, the sleek shadow of the nutria and the plump, lumbering oppossums – all had disappeared.
Nothing, it seemed, was unaffected. Even the rain was gone. Though mud-encrusted plants and salt-soaked soils pleaded to the skies for cleansing and renewal, the rains refused to come. Bare trees, dying plants, silent skies and empty ponds – the voids were everywhere. In a terrible irony, the anguish of natural loss was sharpened by the need for Island residents to continue what nature had begun, cutting down and removing forty thousand of Galveston’s trees. The emptiness created by their loss was both poignant and painful, and would not easily be filled.
But then, something astonishing happened. Once the trees had been cleared, once the wood was gone and the emptiness of Islander hearts was made tangible in the great, open vistas of a newly-naked Galveston, Nature herself appeared to begin filling that void with a vibrant, shining presence – the presence of light.
Galveston always has been a city of remarkable light, but in the years I first knew her, that light seemed focused on her beaches, the Seawall and the Gulf . The vast, open spaces that shimmered and sparkled beneath her semi-tropical sky were complimented by the dappled, shaded portions of the island. Massive live oaks planted by survivors of Galveston’s 1900 storm had a slightly different flavor than the windswept and scrubbier oaks of Rockport and Fulton or the thickly clustered stands of Texas hill county oak, but they distinguished the Island in the same way that the palms of Port Isabel and Corpus Christi distinguish those cities. They lined the path through the city to the sea and they enticed tourists into the historical districts. They were Galveston as much as the sand and sea, and they were glorious.
On the other hand, those huge oaks concealed as much as they revealed. After the Ike-damaged oak standing before this pair of historic homes was removed, their wonderful form, the intricate details of their trim and their cheerful, whimsical spirit became evident. As crisp as good linens and as pretty as the best doll-houses, their appearance changes as the light changes: soft and romantic in the dawn, flat as cardboard cut-outs in the harshness of full noon, nostalgic in the fading dusk.
Throughout the island, the effect is the same. Everyone regrets the loss of the trees, but in their absence sunlight washing across the houses makes them astonishingly beautiful. Best of all, their suddenly treeless state makes it clear the original home builders knew what they were doing. While they waited for their own trees to grow, they designed shade into the homes themselves, deep porches and galleries that still serve as perfect gathering places at any time of day.
Years ago, Galveston reminded me of a child’s finger-painting project. It was filled with bright, bold colors – red plastic sand pails with yellow shovels, blue beach towels, purple, orange and green shaved ices and a rainbow of swimsuits. Today some of that boldness remains, particularly around the Strand, the historic center of Galveston commerce. When the high humidity and haze of summer give way to autumn and the Blue Northers blow in, buildings seem to sail on a sea of light. The white-washed churches breathe Mediterranean sighs, while colored patterns of brick and stone glisten their insistent reminder: form and function, perfectly joined, can rise to the level of art.
But for now it’s summer on the Island, the season of heat, haze and humidity. For the first time in decades, the sun holds sway across the neighborhoods as well as on the beaches, and the city gives up her bold, finger-painted tones. In the cemeteries, light bleaches the stones and washes out the mausoleums. Clacking in the steady breezes from the Gulf, palms glitter as though fitted with metallic fronds. Concrete becomes ethereal as the thin, cerulean skies, and the rows of cotton-candy-pink shells seem as sweet as the trees that once gave shade.
One day, of course, Galveston’s trees will become themselves again, growing full, reaching skyward, branching out to tangle the high-riding moon by night and dappling the sunlight by day. Until that time, Islanders have a new and rare possibility set before them: to walk in a thousand shades and intensities of light. If they are wise, they will take for their walking companion Henry David Thoreau, that close observer of nature who loved her presence and never feared her voids. As he once said, in words bright with clarity and saturated with shades of wisdom, “Nature abhors a vacuum, and if I can only walk with sufficient carelessness, I am sure to be filled.”