The past few days have been difficult ones here at the Farm. High winds have blasted Humptulips County causing several extensive power failures across the grid. Last Friday morning, I watched the power flicker on and off four times before it finally crashed for the remainder of the day. We were without power until the middle of Saturday morning.
At noon on Monday, the power grid once again conceded failure in the teeth of 60 mph gusts, but the power came back by 5:00 PM. Our quicker recovery was helped by the fact that our immediate area was the first to succumb to the high winds, and the PUD power trucks were already headed our way by the time the rest of the outages in the county began to occur. At one time that Monday as many as 200,000 customers were without power throughout Humptulips County. Sometimes it actually pays to be the first to fail.
Whenever the power goes out, I find myself simultaneously irritable and reflective. Since we live in the country, I often imagine powerless nights to be the nearest thing I will ever experience to having been alive in the mid-1800s or earlier. I spend long minutes – especially those comprised of unrelieved darkness – imagining what my predecessors would have done to make the evening hours productive rather than crawling under the duvet in misery as I am wont to do.
While we are reasonably prepared for outages in the way of propane stoves for heating at least portions of the house, the emergency lighting equipment we have at hand is not nearly as durable or as utilitarian as that which I imagine our predecessors must have had. All of our various mass-plasticized, battery-powered lights work erratically in accordance with their own terms, not ours, and seem give out only an anemic, well-washed sort of light altogether insufficient for accomplishing anything other than finding one’s way to the facilities in the dark; and they never cast a wide enough beam to keep me from tripping over the fiendish, attention-seeking cat who inevitably appears from out of the darkened nowhere whenever I take such a trek. It is only when Helen lights a candle or our single oil-powered brass lamp that we are assured of a continuous source of light to pierce the darkness of an outage.
During any blackout, a small part of me always wants to be as hardy as our ancestors seem to have been, but mostly I just sit and howl for the power’s immediate restoration. My only real utility seems to be calling the PUD outage line to report in. After that, I sit and wait impatiently. I don’t mean to suggest that I resent the time it takes the PUD crews to fix whatever is wrong, since they are known to work long, difficult hours during system-wide outages. You have to appreciate and admire their work ethic and dedication, even while you wish that fixing the outage were as simple as finding a triggered circuit breaker on your own power panel and clicking it back into service. No, the problem is simply that I don’t function well during outages; I manage well enough during daylight hours, but the nights are long and uncomfortable, and in March they’re damned cold.
Because our home is all electric (except for two propane stoves), any outage is at least a minor problem, and the longer it lasts it may well approach disaster status insofar as refrigerated or frozen food is concerned. We used to have a gas-powered generator for such emergencies, but gave it up some time ago for reasons I have long since forgotten. I suppose we could wire one back in (self-starting this time, please, instead of the hand pulled, gas engine version we had before), but, in truth, outages come less frequently than they used to and the size of generator we really need is expensive enough for me to wonder whether it has sufficient value given the relative infrequency of outages. We do seem to have a higher incidence of outages this year than last, possibly due to the fact that the PUD hasn’t trimmed the trees along its rights of way in our area for three or four years. We are probably due for their attention sometime soon in accordance with their usual rotation – which will undoubtedly be accompanied by the normal compendium of complaints about having trimmed someone’s favorite tree or interfered with the flow of traffic for the few hours it takes them to tame the area.
In short, compared to our ancestors we are sissies. If they were able to hear us bemoan the terrible strictures we perceive to result from an outage (dark nights, run down cell phone and laptop batteries, and the like), they would undoubtedly shake their heads in disgust and dismay over our inability to navigate what, after all, was for them a normal day. Take, for example, the signal pastime that we still share with our predecessors: reading. They were much better equipped to read in the evenings than we are; candles and lamps may seem quaint and arcane to us, but they still disperse the darkness sufficiently for the purpose. If we only maintained enough of these items on hand, we might match our predecessor’s hardiness and continue to enjoy a good book well into a darkened evening. Instead, I possess two worn out book lights that no longer give sufficient light to read by, a battery operated plastic lantern that only works whenever Helen slams it on the table in just the right way (but never when I try to emulate her), and a large, heavy Maglight that is much too awkward to hold in one hand and attempt to read a book being held in the other. Accordingly, during an outage I usually give up any attempt to read in bed after the first two paragraphs or the first two pages (whichever comes first), and feign sleep instead.
Our society has aligned its stars to the power grid. Our mid-19th century ancestors, being hardy individualists, wouldn’t have had a clue about what a power grid is, or, perhaps, even appreciated the concept. Our new fangled way of dealing with the dark is much more efficient in driving back the dark (among other things) than their methodology was – but only when it works. And it works well enough most of the time; for just as long as humanity exercises its combined will and a sustained collective effort to see to its ongoing maintenance and repair. The massiveness and enormous expense of the effort required to keep the power grid going at any time is both admirable and worrying; the more extensive the power grid becomes, the more vulnerabilities it exposes to attack and the greater the magnitude of the disaster that will follow if it fails altogether. Becoming bigger means being more vulnerable and, thus, more fragile – a condition which the dinosaurs might well have something important to tell us about.
So perhaps we should reconsider our ancestor’s individualistic approach to keeping the dark at bay. As solar panel and battery storage technology improves and becomes more efficient and cost-effective, we might well wish to learn to live again as hardily as they once did. And if we do decide to emulate their courage, I can well imagine myself growling at the dark with the same confident manner they displayed while simultaneously thumbing my nose at them. After all, I would be armed with certain essential improvements they never enjoyed and would be able to do what they were never could – face down the dark singlehandedly with the assistance of fully powered cell phones and laptops (along with their constituent apps), fearless in the prospect of being able to repower these essential tools by my own hand and content with my ability to solve, on-line, the day’s New York Times crossword puzzle whenever I wished.