The weather forecast was for a sunny, windy day. So while my wife left to scout for garden flowers and pottery, I headed to Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge for a muddy hike at the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers.
As I left my vehicle, the wind howled through the tree tops, blowing steadily at about 25 miles per hour with gusts to nearly 40. In the stand of young, closely packed cottonwood and silver maple trees near the parking area, treetops intermingled in the wind, the sound of wood hitting wood, with occasional cracking sounds and falling branchlets. The larger, mature trees moved less, but their canopies were in constant motion. The big gusts sounded as if, in an instant, everything would be swept up and scattered to a thousand destinations.
It occurred to me that a hike through this bottomland forest, with abundant standing, flood-killed timber, may not be the smartest thing to do. But then I considered the situation from the standpoint of chance or probabilities: the likelihood that some event may or may not happen, such as a coin toss coming up heads or tails. What, I thought, were the chances of any particular tree or branch falling at just the moment when I would be in precisely the right location to be hit? The chances could not be very high, even in the heavy winds, as the few branches that fell were small and random. I have often had similar thoughts when passing beneath a widowmaker (i.e., a large tree leaning over so far, it seems just about ready to fall): nothing about my presence beneath the tree could cause the tree to fall at that exact moment, so there would be no need to rush. And yet, most people would never do such a thing; or if they did, would do so with high anxiety and as quickly as possible.
So I continued on my hike, but stayed away from standing dead timber just in case. When I reached the Spoon River, I saw that the river bank had recently collapsed. The Spoon River in this area is an actively meandering river, where the outside curves are typically vertical drop-offs due to the riverbank collapsing and washing away; while the inside curves, or opposite bank, have a much gentler slope, where sediment is deposited. A few feet in front of where I stood, it was a sheer 10-foot drop-off to the river below. If the bank collapsed at just that moment, I would have been in trouble, but then I realized that the likelihood of that happening must be very low. Still, it made sense not to get too close to the edge, for I had no idea whether or not an added 230 pounds could have tipped the precarious balance toward further bank collapse. I stood back and gingerly peered over the edge for a quick look, then tempted fate no longer and moved back toward the forest. The bank held…as I knew it would.
Confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers
Finally at the point where the Spoon River joins the Illinois River, I found a comfortable place to sit beneath a large cottonwood tree (with no dead branches above) that leaned backward at about the same angle as my backyard furniture. At this point on my Spoon River hikes, I usually make a few notes, read, or even take a nap (ten years before, I wrote my wedding vows in the same location). The wind continued to blow as hard as ever, but I felt safe under this particular tree; it had withstood worse winds and maybe even tornados during its many decades of life. And then I was hit! Not by a branch, but by a load of excrement dropped from a white-breasted nuthatch high above; it landed directly on the page where I was writing in my journal. Naturally, my first thought—well, maybe my second thought— after this highly improbable event was: what were the chances of a bird letting loose with a salvo at the precise moment when I would be in the proper place with my open journal in the path for a direct hit? I had no idea of the answer, but I certainly hoped that the probability for such an event occurring would be orders of magnitude higher than any particular tree along the trail falling at a highly inconvenient moment.
I fully admit that I looked around a bit more at the swaying trees on the way back, glad that I chose to stay away from the very edge of the river bank, and a little less sure of myself than on the way out.