Living in town, we took electricity for granted — until a surprise snowstorm delivered our comeuppance.

By Paul Doiron
[W]e live about a mile outside Camden village, a walkable distance in most seasons and weather. The town does a steadfast job of plowing the sidewalks between snowstorms (although our neighborhood seems to be near the bottom of a secret list kept by the Public Works Department). Water flows into the house through the municipal mains and leaves through the public sewers. In short, we consider ourselves to be townsfolk with all the rights and responsibilities that come with the title.

So it was with real dismay that we found ourselves without electricity for four long days and three even longer nights back in November. The local kids were still feasting on Halloween candy when the surprise snowstorm bore down on the midcoast. Adding insult to injury, the power went out 15 minutes into the New England Patriots game. My wife and I have spent a decade in residence in our little house and not once have we lost electricity for more than a few hours. We believed it was part of some bargain we had made with the universe: in return for not having a field of wildflowers, we would have a fire hydrant across the street and a reliable Internet connection. In November, we discovered that this agreement, if it ever existed, was officially null and void.

Being temporarily without electricity feels thrilling at first, like the start of a grand adventure. There are rituals to be performed: candles and flashlights to be inventoried, blankets to be gathered, wood to be schlepped. This last task does not take place in our household though. My wife has asthma, so one of our first acts when we bought the place was to remove the woodstove, a necessary decision that proved bitter as cold began to seep through our floors like a rising tide. Still, we were as prepared as we could be and resourceful too. We moved the items in our freezer to a snowbank (and managed to save everything but a box of popsicles). Safe and secure in our bed, we spent the first night listening to the bone-crack of icy branches snapping outside our walls.

By the next morning, our spirits had begun to turn gray. We huddled around the propane stove for warmth while I boiled water for coffee. We read books with headlamps illuminating the pages. Mostly we waited. What had started out as a novel break in our daily routine was becoming a slog. Businesses along Route 1 remained shuttered. The market around the corner lost thousands of dollars worth of food.

We clung to our smartphones with unseemly desperation, grateful to the unsung engineer who had made it possible to recharge batteries via your car’s cigarette lighter. We clicked and re-clicked the Central Maine Power website, looking for news of when we could expect electricity to return.

“Don’t you have a generator?” our rural friends asked on Facebook (that 21st-century cracker barrel).

We had never needed one before. Now we knew better. The surprise storm was re-teaching us an important lesson about preparedness — and its limits.

Losing power is an apt expression with a double meaning. It describes the state of being deprived of a commonplace convenience. But it also suggests a more cosmic change in one’s relation to the natural world. There are so many ways we can find ourselves powerless.

When the lights flickered back on and the furnace began to hum, my wife cried actual tears of joy. I started shopping for generators.


Photo: sazzinnzi/Flickr