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Nature’s Warnings
Amid the deafening din and startling stillness of Colorado’s deadly floods, there’s a message for us. Listen.

The National Guard has stationed itself outside my home. Men with weapons, huge flood lamps, armored humvees. But it’s the sounds, not the sights, that I notice in the wake of this storm—Colorado’s thousand-year flood, as they’re calling it now. It’s the hum of their generator that lulls me to sleep at night, wakes me in the morning. Sometimes I can hear the men speaking, a little murmur of words that remind me of a stream. But there are no streams here now. Only raging rivers.

This storm came so quietly. No rolling thunder, no booming lightning. It wisped in, silently, without nature’s warnings, without any 911 calls to alert anyone. Perhaps it’s the hush of it that has altered my hearing forever. These last few days, I’ve become hyper-attuned: to the sounds of this massive storm, to all the dialects of rain, to the languages of water, to the human sounds that this moisture has put into motion.

I listen to the lack of traffic. I live on a small road at the base of Colorado’s mountains, in a place called Bellvue, and we residents of this little unincorporated town are stranded. The roads are deserted. And anyway, there’s nowhere to go. Through the rain, I see a few folks walk to the post office, a few to the Grange—that is all we have—but the rest of us stay inside, looking out at quiet roads. I decide that I could, in an emergency, sneak out the old ditch road, but I know that if I make it out, I’ll likely not be able to get back in. I learned this lesson last summer during the wildfire evacuations—better to stay home with work and food and pets rather than to be aimless and homeless. So my neighbors and I—we all stay inside our homes, unable or unwilling to go.

The rain, of course, is the constant sound. It just keeps coming, five days in a row now. Depending on where I am in the house, or which window is open, I hear it differently. The way it hits the aspen trees is different than the way it hits the raspberries. It slows, then speeds again. From time to time, it pauses altogether, as if taking a little breath. So far, we’ve had nine or so inches—more than half our annual average—in the last few days. It keeps pouring and pouring and pouring. Around us, towns are being swept away, people being evacuated, ranchlands turned into lakes. But we can’t hear this. We can only hear the rain.

No rolling thunder, no booming lightning. The storm wisped in, silently, without nature’s warnings, without any 911 calls to alert anyone.

It’s the river itself that has the most to say. The Cache la Poudre—French for “cache of powder,” named for a legendary supply of gunpowder buried by trappers caught in another storm, long ago. I walk down the street in the rain to its raging banks and wonder at my naivete—I had forgotten how loud water can be. Not only the roar of the water itself, but the way it hits the cement of the bridge or crashes against rock. I am startled by an especially large crack, and then another, and another—the huge cottonwoods are cracking, falling, thudding into the river, where they immediately crack up more, branches flying up and splitting apart. So loud, compared to the rest of this lulling noise.

After hours of watching, mesmerized, I leave the roar of the river. I walk past the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s fish hatchery, which is completely flooded—all the fish now tumbling in the river, past haystacks that have toppled over and strewn hay bales all along fields. I walk past wet horses and llamas and goats, looking miserable in standing water.

When I get back home, I notice that the world has grown oddly quieter.

When the electricity goes out, we have the silence of a house without a refrigerator humming.

When the Internet goes down, I hear the kids relocating their interests to a board game.

When I step outside, it seems like the ground itself is making a quiet little hum, absorbing water, storing it away, or burbling it back out in protest.

Even the chickens are quieter; they aren’t bokking their usual egg-laying bok, and when I look out the window to check on them, they stand there, bedraggled under the eve of the house, looking up at me. “Hey lady,” they seem to say, “enough of this rain stuff.” I shrug helplessly and quote my favorite quote for helpless situations—the Stephen Crane poem “A Man Said to the Universe”—in a soft lilting voice.

Then the rain stops; the world grows suddenly loud again. Helicopters buzz—the small ones from the news stations and the large beasts from the National Guard. A low-flying airplane growls overhead. The news pours in: the town of Estes Park gone, the road above us nearly so, people dead, people missing, people without homes. The phone starts to ring excessively. Calls from across the nation as loved ones hear—my little agricultural valley has made international news. Then a call from a person in-the-know at water utilities: they’ll shut off the water if the pipes get contaminated, which could happen soon. Suddenly the house is filled with clanking pots and pans, the rush of water into the bathtub for storage. Then, one after the other, robo-calls come in from the kids’ schools: school is cancelled, sports are cancelled, there’s an evacuation center.

Then a call from my parents’ farm, downriver. The cottonwoods along the bank went early in the flood, and now the irrigated pasture, bit by bit, is falling into the river. All the trees my parents planted near their house—lilacs and walnuts and sumacs—have been swept away, as well. I hear sorrow in my mother’s voice.

In the crush of noise, I decide to pack up a few things, just in case the reservoir goes; it’s already topped over, and its instability is the big silent worry. Passports, photos, pet stuff—all the same items I packed during last summer’s wildfire. I listen to my sound of my bare feet on wooden floor as I wander around the house, gathering.

Then it starts pouring again. The helicopters and planes get grounded. The phone calls stop as people go back to staring out the window, lulled by the possibilities and sorrows this new rain brings.

I sit in the quiet and in the roar. The rain is picking up; faster and faster it comes. I’m listening.

Read more OnEarth coverage of the Colorado floods.

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image of Laura Pritchett
Laura Pritchett is the author of several books, including the novel Stars Go Blue, to be released by Counterpoint Press this summer. More at MORE STORIES ➔
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"the reservoir’s already topped over, and its instability is the big silent worry..." This article is full of references to the silent, tacit structures all around us: vehicles, roads, houses, utilities, bathtubs, schools, riverbanks, and dams, ditches and bridges ... structures mostly unacknowledged by us despite their powerful omnipresence in our daily lives. Here all these structures are under pressure to the point of failing due to the "fragile intensity" - to paraphrase E.E Cummings - of the rain falling from the suddenly monsoonal sky. Not to mention the indifference of the universe. Those of us who live with this moment to moment awareness of this worrisome pressure are usually diagnosed with anxiety and given medication. The bravest among us will refuse these interventions, and instead, sit in the sudden silence and listen to the roar around us.