Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dutch Weather, Monster Trees, and Small Miracles.

Location of the Monster Tree
I like living in Holland. I wasn't sure at first, but the place has grown on me, a bit like a fungus. We have a house with plenty of space, a private(ish) back garden, and our neighbours have finally thawed to the "Engelse"  and now greet us almost every time they see us. The weather, however, is another matter.

I cycle to and from work on my trusty Batavus every working day, and so I get to experience the weather close-up and personal. I recently heard a comedian ask why anyone would possibly want to know the wind speed when watching a weather forecast. Because it makes a huge difference to people like me, that's why.

So, thanks to the cancellation of summer this year, the weather has gone from a cold winter to a not-so-cold version of winter. As I wrte this, the sky is overcast and the ground is still wet from the rain that seems determined to continue falling until next year. In August we had strong winds to go along with the driving rain. On the last Friday of that month, the monster tree in our back garden blew down.

I call it a monster tree because it grows very quickly and seems set on devouring the house. Also, it doesn't have a normal trunk like most trees. It has one of those twisting, distorted trunks up to about waist height, after which it splits off into many smaller trunks. It looks like Medusa's head, or that snake that Jason and the Argonauts tied to kill but which sprouted two new heads every time they chopped one off.

In its attempt to devour our house, the monster tree sprouted four smaller trunks, each going in a different direction. Two were headed for the house itself, another for the industrial greenhouse that forms the back wall of our garden, and the third towards the huge water tank sitting next to the factory which forms the side wall to our property. So we've got an overgrown monster tree sitting slap bang in the middle of a residence, a greenhouse, and a water tank. Cue gale-force winds and you've got a disaster itching to happen.

As is so often the way with imminent disasters, I was planning to avert said event by doing some heavy trimming the following weekend. Normally, my landlord would do this, but he seems to have forgotten we actually live there. I was planning to haul out the secateurs on Saturday. The tree blew down on Friday.

I say it blew down, but "down" is not the best word to describe what the monster tree did. It splintered in multiple directions like some grotesque house of cards, splitting right down to the base of the supporting trunk. My wife sent me a Google Chat message at work to say the tree had fallen and was leaning dangerously against the house, although thankfully nothing was damaged--yet. She said my son was busy trimming the branches that were leaning heavily against the windows at the back of the house. She took a photograph from inside and it looked as though the windows were about to break.

When I arrived home the garden was strewn with branches. I took a quick look at the trunk and saw where it had split. At the time I noticed that the base trunk was split in two, right down to the soil. One half was leaning toward the water tank. The second was pointing at our house. I can see the split in my mind very clearly now. It had a very distinct shape with one trunk leaning back towards the water tank and the other sort of curled around towards the house.

We decided it would be best to leave the rest until the morning as it was still raining heavily. Next morning the wind had died down and the greenhouse and water tank were still intact. We did our weekly shop and loaded the fridge. My son and I set about removing the biggest branches threatening the water tank. My wife said she wanted to defrost the freezer because ice was stopping her from closing the door. She asked to borrow a chisel and hammer. My words as I handed her the tools were: "Please be careful."

About ten minutes later, she appeared with the chisel and hammer in hand and said there was a hissing sound coming from the back of the freezer. The general concensus was that this was not good. A quick check on Google confirmed that the coolant was leaking and that the only realistic option was a new fridge. I grabbed the car keys and took my son in to town to visit the local electrical store. It was at this point the small miracles started to happen.

Small miracle #1: The shop assistant stated quite clearly that they do not deliver on Saturday and they could only get it to us by Tuesday. I said that we had a week's worth of shopping sitting on the kitchen floor. He said they couldn't deliver. My son asked him if there was no way they could get it to us. The assistant made a phone call and said it might be possible because someone was doing repairs in our area but had only limited room in his van. So, we had to choose one of the smaller models and delivery was possible. Our shopping would be saved.

Small miracle #2: The model we chose was about my height. I remember in the shop that it was standing on a plinth about two inches off the ground and the top of the fridge was slightly above the top of my head. Later that afternoon when we took delivery, the fridge was flat on the ground and a good four inches above my head. I double-checked the receipt and it was the same model we had selected in the shop. So, somehow, we ended up with a bigger fridge with the same model number, and there was room in the van. I later found out that my daughter had prayed for that exact thing.

Small miracle #3: With the new fridge safely installed, my son and I resumed trimming the tree. As we worked, however, I realised that the tree looked different somehow. Instead of one split in the trunk, there were now two. On Friday evening I remember there being two trunks at soil level. One was leaning towards the water tank and the other towards the house. Now there was a third trunk in front of the other two, leaning dangerously towards the greenhouse. I hadn't noticed it that morning because I was preoccupied with the bit threatening the house but, as I looked at it, there it was, clear as day, blocking the two I had seen the night before. I asked my wife and kids and they said they only remembered seeing just the two trunks. I asked my wife if she had taken a photograph of the trunk when it first split, but she said she had wanted to but did not because of the rain. So at some point between the tree falling down and Saturday morning, a third portion of the tree had mysteriously vanished. We suspect God took it out of the picture to avoid a disaster with the greenhouse. Indeed, while removing it, we had to use ropes to stop it smashing into the glass structure. I can imagine that a strong gust of wind on Friday night would have easily sent that part of the tree crashing down.

Small miracle #4: By Saturday afternoon the garden was swimming in tree branches, so much so that we couldn't see any lawn at all, and we still had a lot more of the tree to chop down. The landlord arrived to cut the front lawn but didn't venture into the back. We could have asked him to clear the branches but we decided to save him the trouble and do it ourselves. I guessed it would take a good four weekends to clear, but we would manage. On Tuesday, the landlord arrived with a chainsaw, a tractor, and a friend. and proceeded to finish the job for us. When I got home that night the garden was clear and, thanks to the trimming done by the landlord, we now have a bigger garden and much more light coming into the house.

In my pre-Christian days I would have taken these events as mere chance occurences, or mistakes, or a dodgy memory. More accurately, I would have seen only the negative aspects: a broken tree, a broken fridge, an unwanted expense. Now what I see is God intervening in what could have been a very bad weekend, and turning it right around into something postive.


  1. Ain't it the truth. When things go well, we credit ourselves. When things go wrong, we blame God. But what a joy it is to find His hand at work in the small things of life.

  2. What a wonderful experience, Paul. Great to see the Lord making something beautiful from chaos! I also believe the cheerful Christian attitude you showed probably impressed your landlord enough to get in and help out.

  3. Paul, I'm glad the tree didn't cause significant damage. The one time we had a tree fall in our yard, it fell at the only possible angle where it could miss hitting the house and/or fence and cause no damage, for which we were very thankful.

  4. I love the juxtaposition of all these "coincidences." Just remember that a coincidence is a small miracle where God chooses to remain anonymous. If you don't want to see Him, you don't have to. But if you're looking, there He is.