NASHVILLE — By March 22, the day Mayor John Cooper issued a safer-at-home order here to slow the transmission of the coronavirus, the city had already been in crisis mode for nearly three weeks. Monster tornadoes had ripped through this region, killing 25 people and demolishing hundreds of buildings, including nearly 400 homes in Nashville alone. And it’s pretty hard to shelter in place when your shelter has just taken a ride through the sky.
The storms that hit last week were milder by comparison, but Tennesseans still began to mutter darkly about divine retribution. “Tornadoes, Covid, no power,” tweeted the musician Kendell Marvel, taking a shot at big-hat country radio, “it’s almost like Nashville is being punished for all the years of mediocre music.”
Part of the dismay stems from the unusual weather itself. A rare system called a derecho sent hurricane-force straight-line winds blowing across Middle Tennessee, toppling ancient trees and power poles and leaving 131,000 people without electricity. Heroic Nashville Electric Service crews — which, because of concerns about the coronavirus, were working through the night without the usual assistance from teams in nearby states — got that number down to about 80,000 on Monday. That was before a weather system called a wake low, also rare, triggered yet another round of powerful storms and brought the number of people without power back up, to 120,000.
Coming on the heels of a deadly virus that has never been seen in humans before, the unusual storms introduced a reasonable question: Why does the natural world keep finding new ways to kill us?
On the bright side, no sign of murder hornets here yet.
Losing power on Sunday night is one thing, but lacking power on a workday feels almost calamitous, especially when libraries and coffee shops, the satellite “offices” that telecommuters rely on, are already closed.
Yes, yes, I know: This situation does not a calamity make. When a massive storm system destroys thousands of old trees but takes only one human life, the town has gotten off easy, and we knew it.
People here are accustomed to pitching in during a crisis — even Representative Jim Cooper hauled out his chainsaw to help clear the streets — and everyone I know would gladly have lived without power for weeks if it meant saving that one life. Still, when the electric utility announced that outages were so extensive as to be unprecedented and that getting everyone back on the grid could take one to two weeks, there was a great groaning in Nashville.
I was not entirely troubled by this turn of events, I have to admit. I missed the hot showers — oh, how I missed the hot showers! — but the four broken power poles that spilled live wires onto my street meant lighter traffic in the neighborhood, and the lack of power itself provided a good excuse to let unanswered emails languish. I loved hearing our youngest boys, home now because the pandemic has filled this empty nest back up, laughing with each other over a game of cards instead of being hunched over their personal screens.
I figured a week of spit baths would be a good trade for nights around the kitchen table, all of us reading together by candlelight. Not everyone in my family feels this way, but for me those nights were a pure pleasure made perfect by the book at hand: “This Is Happiness” by the Irish novelist Niall Williams, about the coming of electricity to a remote village, a book so beautiful and so funny and so true that it will make you love the whole human race and forgive it all its trespasses.
Plus, this has been the loveliest spring imaginable, cool and damp and green, the old-timey kind of Middle Tennessee springtime that we used to get every year and now get almost never, a gentle, rainy springtime that keeps the flowers blooming for days and days and fills the trees with birdsong. Opening the windows to a spring like this one, at a time when the neighborhood machinery has fallen silent and the crickets and the screech owls are the only sounds in the air, is nothing less than a gift.
To take a walk at night in a city that has settled into silence and a darkness that has become far too rare is to return to something precious, something lost for so long you’ve forgotten to miss it. When it comes back to you unbidden, when that big pie plate of a moon and that star-drenched sky bless you as you walk down the middle of your street, right down the middle of the street, with your head thrown back and your mouth fallen open, that’s something more than a gift. It’s a walk through the past, a walk in the present and possibly — if we can’t change our lives in time to head off the coming environmental collapse — a walk into the future. All at once.
It’s a time of neighborliness, as everyone looks in on the elderly and the lonely, checking to be sure they’re making do and guessing about when the lights might come back on. A time when people stand in the street, an appropriate social distance apart, and linger, talking. For what is there to rush back to at the silent houses? A time when children play outside long past dark and go to bed dirty, their hair still smelling of that old sweet scent of childhood: sunlight and soil and sweat.
Walking the dark street, you can watch the candles come on in one room of a neighbor’s house and then move, disembodied, into the next, finally going dark as you move toward home yourself. As you strike a match to send a light into the darkness from your own window, too.
But then, only three days into the power outage, the heroes of the Nashville Electric Service arrived to perform their magnificent magic, stringing lines and erecting monster poles and hauling themselves up and down, up and down, sometimes with bucket trucks but sometimes with nothing but their own good muscles, a tool belt and some spiked shoes, for 15 hours straight.
When, finally, the lights came on, all the people standing in the street erupted into cheers and thank-yous — but not hugs and handshakes, for there’s still a pandemic to fear — and walked on home, laughing under streetlights, and stars they could no longer see.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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