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Natural balance 

Paradise comes at a price. "Always," offered my brother from his balmy porch in Hilo, Hawaii, where mangoes and papayas drop to the ground around him, where the sea breezes are warm and gentle, where the sun always seems to shine. Squinting up into the balmy blue while visiting him, I was skeptical, until he reminded me of Mauna Loa just a few miles away, ready to blow, and the tsunamis and hurricanes and earthquakes lying in wait out at sea, far neither in time nor space. He might not own a winter coat, but nature always holds claim to just a little of his paradise picture.

I have a Piedmont paradise here in Durham County, at the back end of a lovely farm. I've got a cozy old house, no neighbors in sight, great oak woods and open fields all around me. I've been here 28 years now with no substantive disasters. Yesterday, though, I was reminded of the price I may pay—my own dormant volcano, my lurking tsunami.

I was behind the house getting an armload of firewood when the peaceful morning cracked with the terrible sound of a great tree on its way down. Several massive trees hover over my little homestead and dot the fields where houses used to stand. I call them Grandmothers. These trees are a comfort, family, here for me. My Grandmothers measure more than 12 feet around at the base and claim a great chunk of sky with their gorgeous canopies. They reign over their plentiful children and grandchildren of the woods with a stately and enduring presence.

Over the years, I've experienced the loss of six Grandmothers on this farm—from old age or hurricane, lightning or tornado. But today there was no wind and no storm. This Grandmother was simply, thunderously lying down to die after 150 years of standing in silence. I was here for her moment, and she was very, very close.

I dropped the firewood and raced around the house to face the damage. Was it my deck? My tool barn? My car? She had the right and the might to take it all, so I steeled myself for disaster.

But I was fortunate: The tree came down into a side yard, falling away from every structure. She smashed huge holes in the ground with her mighty limbs; she took out smaller trees all around. Her fingers tickled the telephone lines. The giant root ball, still filled with clay, hung vertically now after all those years of holding her steady in the earth. But this wonderful Grandmother spared me completely as she lay herself down. My paradise was still intact.

But remember that there's always a price to pay. There's at least two or three years of firewood within her fallen frame. I have a lot of cutting, splitting, hauling and stacking to do if I'm to thank her.

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