Monday, August 14, 2006

Finding ourselves in the dark

Sure they had restored the power across the lake, but we were spared the invasion of
It's been three years now and what have we really learned? At 4:11 p.m. ET on Aug. 14, 2003, Ontario and a massive chunk of the northeastern U.S. was plunged into a darkness brought on by overconsumption. The electric grid was overwhelmed by excessive use and a plant in Ohio shut down, triggering a series of shutdowns in a cascading blackout that left 50 million people in the dark from New York to North Bay.

Many of you will remember the panic and confusion brought on by the sudden lack of electricity. I remember driving home from work with my co-worker and chuckling that someone at the radio station fell asleep at the switch because the airwaves went dead. Only when we tried to catch other station and all were down did we begin to wonder what was up. As we exited the highway and noticed the lack of stop lights and the abundance of people on the sidewalks looking bewildered did we realize that the problem was larger than the radio stations.

After running over to the local convenience store and grabbing a few bags of ice we repacked everything and then relished the fact that a natural gas stove and barbecue allowed us the luxury of not having to scramble around in our rapidly darkening home to find our campstove so we could feed our daughter, who was a wee baby at that point. I drove around with her in the air conditioned car and gave water to the many officers who were standing in for the many streetlights that had slacked off. It was during this mission that I noticed the city had undergone a transformation. Sure it was darker and quieter, but that was a minimal thing compared to the fallout of the blackout. Without the magical juice that fuels our lights and televisions we are also left without radio, internet and other diversions. People were wandering outside and sitting on their lawns talking with one another.

Neighbors who lived down the road who had never before been seen by the locals appeared, rubbing their eyes in adjustment to the outdoors. People were friendly and helpful, traffic (what little there was) was civil and organized and the world seemed a nicer place. Living up by the escarpment at the time, we walked to the edge and marveled at the sight of a city in darkness at sunset. As we all looked in wonder at a sky we ignore on a regular basis we also noticed something wonderful. Without the illumination of the excess light that we routinely pour into our skies, the stars' twinkling beauty could be seen clearly. Skies that we typically only see after a long trek into the wilderness sparkled beautifully above us, creating a delightful backdrop to the laughter and goodwill that could be heard rolling through the night air. All easily heard without the mindless droning of air conditioners muddying the night air. Neighbors shared their food, drink and companionship and for one brief shining (darkened?) moment all seemed right with the world.

For a moment I almost understood what it may have been like for the soldier in the world war who talked about the magically brief Christmas ceasefire and its effect on everyone. Soon enough the lights came back on and we burrowed back down into our little holes like gophers. Many neighbors we would never see again once the power was restored but the magic of that dark and quiet night will always be with me as a flash of hope for us all. I still stick to my statements of the past that we should shut down the grid for a day every year to try and recapture the magic of the night, but then again we seem to have a tendency to bugger up that which we plan so the effect may not be the same. We would be reminded of just how dependent we are to those little plates in the wall that pour forth their magical power, but we wouldn't likely be reminded of the outpouring of support from each other as we would be prepared for it and could tunnel in to our own little prepared holes. I'll just hope that the conservation lessons that haven't seemed to be learned in our area, where we broke electrical consumption records again this month, will result in another short term blowout. The millions of dollars that have been poured into the grid may not allow it but I can always hope......


Blogger ms. creek said...

insightful, pete. i like what you had to say, and guess i've never been in such a position. in our less populated area (town of 650) we have no street lights on this upper end where we live. we routinely go out and look at the stars and moon from our deck. i just can't imagine what it is like to NOT see such a site because of too many lights. i know all my neighbors and we often have casual visits...i take for granted what so many never experience. i do think, however, we consume far too much energy and really need to focus on alternate sources, such as the wind..which we in the west have ABUNDANT!

8:54:00 AM  
Blogger Memphis Steve said...

I wish we could turn out the lights more often. I miss seeing the stars. And the constant barrage of sights and sounds from the TV, radio and internet wears us down in ways we aren't even concious of.

12:01:00 PM  
Blogger Rowan said...

I know what you mean, I kept thinking at the time of the blackout that we'd have crime running amok, but I was amazed at how neighbourly and helpful everyone had become. I was expecting my son at this time and I remember being so hungry but afraid to eat anything in our fridge. It did offer us family time with no distractions.

1:46:00 PM  
Blogger Kye said...

I remember vividly where I was when this happened... 30 minutes from boarding a plane to NFLD for my friend's wedding, travelling alone, sans cell phone or vehicle. Paid $5.00 for a 500ml bottle of water at the airport, nearly got punched by the customer service rep of Skyservice after I asked her name so I could use it when I discussed her attitude with her supervisor, when the phones were working again. oh right, my drunk, husband (ex-husband less then a week later) refused to come and pick me up and said I could start walking if I wanted to. (right... it's already an hour drive home...I was right on top of that one!) So.. slept on the floor of terminal 3 with the nice gay couple and the tattoo artist who shared a bottle of wine with us and offered to tattoo us when we all got back. Sigh...oh the memories. what doesn't kill us makes us stronger eh? LOL

6:33:00 PM  
Blogger Ego's Alter said...

Wow...what a beautiful post. I love that it started out about one thing, and really caught me off-guard with its beauty at the end. Have you ever heard the U2 song "City of Blinding Lights"? That's what this post reminds me of.

10:16:00 PM  
Blogger jon said...

I guess the one good thing that did come out of that was realizing that we could survive something like that. One might have predicted that a power outage of that scale would have started the Apocalypse, but it didn't, and in our little corner of the power free zone, it seemed to bring out the best in some people.

11:42:00 PM  
Blogger DutchBitch said...

Even over here in Dutchyland power outages keep happening more often! And the baby booms 9 months later are enormous...

5:30:00 AM  
Blogger Celti said...

You know, this is a perfect example of why I read your blog. Your optimistic but realistic outlook and unique point of view are absolutely refreshing. The world would be SO much better off if more people would think like you.

11:46:00 AM  
Blogger ms. creek said...

hello darkness, my old friend.....

10:20:00 PM  
Blogger Martini said...

I actually thought the blackout was great fun, although it added a lot of work to my workday.

I enjoy when large numbers of people are stuck in the same situation. It's kind of neat when everybody has the same concerns. That's when ingenuity comes out and strangers help strangers and friendships grow stronger.

5:35:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Leslie said...

Wow, my friend, you brought back that wonderfully slightly frightening but mostly peaceful night quite beautifully - thanks for that.

Man, wish I'd known you then, would have had you over to enjoy a few Lakeport beers on our back deck while we were watching the stars.

11:54:00 PM  
Blogger JODSTER said...

Mine was out for only 4 hours. There were only 6 houses in our neighbourhood with power. Neighbours had extension cords running over fences to keep freezers running.

10:36:00 AM  

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