Hanging on

Loggers call them widowmakers: broken limbs or tree-tops that snag on the forest canopy, dangling and threatening to fall without warning. After tropical storm Irene gave our Newton neighborhood a thorough pruning last weekend, all that’s left of the wind and rain are a handful of blow-downs that never quite blew down.

Yard waste

In the immediate aftermath of Irene, it was prudent to watch your step, since our neighborhood was littered with leafy twigs, brittle sticks, and one ominous-looking cable that snaked across our street, the area cordoned off with red hazard tape. Once all those twigs and sticks had been gathered into trash barrels, leaf bags, and twine-tied piles, you’d best keep your head up when you walked, on the lookout for hazards overhead.

Now that I’ve spent the past week looking for widowmakers, I seem to find them everywhere: not just the new ones from Irene, but old seasoned specimens from past storms. The treetops, it turns out, are simply littered with broken limbs and dangling branches, each threatening to succumb to gravity at any minute. Who has time to watch their step when so much danger looms from above?


Humans are fragile creatures, thin-skinned and vulnerable. We live much of our lives in our heads, oblivious to the dangers that surmount them. With our heads, we think we can control our fate by being careful: if we watch our steps, watch our diet, and look both ways, we’re all but guaranteed a long and healthy life. The widowmaker called Time looms to prove otherwise. No matter how carefully we try to control our destinies, an oncoming car careens out of control, a cancer diagnosis strikes like lighting out of the blue, or a precariously dangling tree limb succumbs to gravity. You just never know what is hanging directly overhead, held by the thinnest thread.

Bent tree

Time itself is a widowmaker, as is history. Ten years ago this week, a crisp September day began like any other until not one but three planes sliced our lives into the separate segments of Before and After. As the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, I keep thinking of the so-called falling man, a worker who jumped from the World Trade Center rather than waiting to succumb to fire and smoke. In his iconic picture, the falling man hangs upside down and aloft, his legs crooked like a runner. Who knew that morning what horrors awaited: who knew then how many flying souls would fall?

On my commute from Newton to Keene, a church marquee asks, “Tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes: how prepared are you?” Although I might quibble with the sign’s theology, I agree wholeheartedly with its urgency. Not even a single second of our lives is guaranteed; at every moment, the widowmaker of mortality hangs overhead like a sword on a string. It’s fine and good to watch your step, but even our best-made plans pale in a world where we’re left hanging in a forest full of danger, malice, and chance.