A fallen tree is a little like a beached whale, or a door off its hinges or the propeller of a wind turbine traveling on a highway strapped to the bed of an 18-wheeler. What strikes you is not the explanation behind the circumstances — the series of events that toppled the tree or caused the whale to lose its true north or unhinged the door — but the gulf between the usual context and the matter at hand, between knowing that a tree shouldn’t lie on its side and seeing the toppled thing. It’s the absurdity of it.
Such was the oak felled by Sandy on the Green. Half of the tree’s branches, the unlucky ones, were splayed flat against the ground, crushed under the weight of the others, which reached up, unexpectedly high, somehow occupying more space than they had when they hung up in the air. On the other end — by which I mean the left, since speaking of top and bottom is a moot point in the case of a fallen tree — were the roots, poking through the chunk of earth yanked from the ground by the falling trunk.
And then there was the skeleton, buried in that chunk of earth.
When I stopped by the Green on Tuesday night, the bones made their presence known through the production that had been set up around them: the police tape that marked the area, the bright lights that shone over the hole, the tent pitched over the roots to protect against rainfall, the onlookers who shuffled their feet through the leaves on the ground as they came and went, and the cops who stood watch as a Yale anthropologist and an investigator from the Medical Examiner’s Office dug out the remains. From a distance, the picture — the lights, the white tent, the two men knee-deep in the ground — looked not unlike a vigil.
That the skeleton was under the tree was a coincidence. The bones went underground about 200 years ago, when the Green was still a cemetery. The oak came a full 100 years later in 1909. Over the next century, the tree would reach down and so thoroughly wrap itself around the bones that the two men excavating the remains had to use a large set of pliers to work at the roots.
So it makes sense that the skeleton was there, but the whole thing was still a little absurd. And maybe that’s fitting. When Hurricane Sandy hit earlier this week, it was as though life held no more tightly to normalcy than the leaves to the branches of trees. Time, for a few days, seemed to stand still or flow in reverse: Sunday became Friday, Monday became Saturday.
And things got a little weird: People dressed up as penguins and punks and bananas and trekked to Box for a $15 open bar. Or else they holed up in their colleges and played Apples to Apples or watched The O.C. or blasted songs from the ’90s and sang along to “All Star.” I went to Zeta.
Here’s the point: the unusual isn’t too far removed from the usual. To look at life in this way is to think of it as a sculpture in relief. The normal — the status quo — is the raised stone, the parts of the picture you can feel with your fingers if you were to run them across the surface. The unusual lies in the sunk-in regions, in the ridges that give the rest its shape.
Sometimes I think we spend so much time defining ourselves in positives — who we are and what we do — that we don’t consider the alternatives. We need an event of awesome proportions, a storm strong enough to topple a tree, to uproot us from that routine, to give us an excuse to dabble in the unusual. This is not to say you should live every day as though it were the eve of a hurricane, but I think it’s healthy to depart from the status quo on occasion — to waste a Monday night watching The O.C. and playing Apples to Apples and singing along to “All Star.” And, if that’s not enough, there’s always Zeta.
Teo Soares is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .