River talk

Lightning insights

By SANDY LONG
Posted 7/20/21

A few weeks back, a large hemlock on our hill was struck by lightning during a particularly violent afternoon storm. It exploded from within, raining large tree shards across and down the hill and …

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River talk

Lightning insights

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A few weeks back, a large hemlock on our hill was struck by lightning during a particularly violent afternoon storm. It exploded from within, raining large tree shards across and down the hill and tearing off branches of nearby trees. Several of the spear-like shards thrown into the air nearly reached the house below before re-entering the ground, standing upright like stakes laying claim to something. 

The blasting current passed into the earth, too, tearing a trench across the hillside, uncovering a small boulder and traveling under a shed, where it melted a plastic tarp, before passing out the other side and concluding its journey at the base of another tree. We are left with quite a mess to clean up, but also with the electrifying fragrance of a heady pine resin that still permeates the air. 

Because lightning targets tall objects, it frequently strikes trees, especially those on hills or near bodies of water. The following explanation by americanclimbers.com effectively describes what probably happened to our tree: 

“As soon as lightning strikes the tree, water in its cells can start to boil causing steam to form. The expanding steam can explode, cracking bark or even stripping it off the tree. If the lightning strikes deep within the tree, the whole tree can blow up. It all depends on the amount of water in the tree and where it’s located; moisture deep in the sapwood often results in more catastrophic effects than does moisture on or just below the bark.” 

On the symbolic side of things, such a strike is said to imbue a sacred quality to the place where it occurs. 

Lightning strikes also hold various meanings, ranging from sudden illumination or enlightenment to warnings from the gods. In Greek mythology, Zeus, known as the King of the Gods, often wielded the weapon of a lightning bolt. In Germanic mythology, “Thor is a hammer-wielding god associated with lightning, thunder, storms, sacred groves and trees, strength, the protection of mankind and also hallowing and fertility,” according to Wikipedia. 

Lightning-struck wood is believed by some to hold great power, to offer protection from harm and to provide a tool for transformation. The stricken tree spears now rest along the edge of our hillside walkway, setting a path for contemplation of natural forces and more. 

Already, a poem has come from this “enlightening” experience: 

Sacred Strike

Sky-struck, / the massive tree / took a stake to the heart. //

Lifeblood boiled to the core. //

It shattered from within, / spewing shards into the ethers; / they rained back down, / plunging spears that pierced / the current-splintered ground, / sizzling almost silently.  //

A boulder, excavated by the / arc of energy blasting past, / emerged to meet the / light of change. //

The air, singed with resin, / still sings.  //

Did You Know?

  • According to the National Weather Service, lightning can heat the air it passes through to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, five times hotter than the surface of the sun.
  • Remember the 30-30 rule for lightning safety: “After you see lightning, start counting to 30. If you hear thunder before you reach 30, go indoors. Suspend activities for at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder. Learn more at www.cdc.gov/nceh/features/lightning-safety/index.html.

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Jennifer Canfield

Loved this account of a dynamic strike. I appreciate how informative it was. Also, appreciated the nod to the poetic side of our natural world. Beautiful, very moving.

Thursday, July 22