On May 31st, four hours before the widest tornado in recorded history tore through central Oklahoma, Tracie Alexis Seimon tied a tag to a tree that stood outside of Sid’s Diner in El Reno, Oklahoma. She tied the small, rectangular tag to a branch. On the tag she wrote:
‘What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and one another.’ ~ Ghandi
Chances are very high that no one ever had the chance to read it.
Tracie is a molecular scientist for her day job. She was in the Midwest on vacation with her husband, Anton Seimon, a veteran tornado researcher and storm chaser who has conducted research for organizations like National Geographic. Chasing storms is an extra-curricular activity for the Seimons and they use vacation time to immerse themselves in massive weather systems. They have done this for years. On their most recent trip in May, they also volunteered to be Tree Dreams taggers.
Their relatively routine storm chasing trip took a tragic turn, however. Three of the Seimon’s friends and colleagues lost their lives in the tornado that claimed five other lives as well.
But when Tracie hung her tag on the tree at Sid’s Diner in El Reno, she had no idea just how violent the storm would become. At that point, she simply wondered whether the tag would still be hanging the next day. She didn’t have to drive very far outside of town before she knew that the chances were slim.
The tornado that swept through Oklahoma that day grew in size from ½ mile wide to 2.6 miles wide in a matter minutes. It was so huge that from up close you couldn’t see the sides of it—the swirling mass, with 300-mile-an-hour winds, was simply all that you saw. It became a maximum strength tornado, rated an EF-5, the highest rating possible.
Tracie is still trying to piece together what transpired over the next few hours, but it included being caught in hurtling curtains of rain, trying to keep track of the multiple vortices that spontaneously emerged, and dodging flying debris. At one point, the tornado suddenly changed direction and increased in size and intensity to a degree that no one had anticipated. Luckily, the Seimons managed to break free from the storm’s circulation and flooding rains and drove to safety at her brother’s house—a drive that normally takes forty-five minutes, but took five hours due to the storm.
The Seimons spent the next thirty-six hours reconstructing the day’s events—their route, the storm and their relation to its movements—to better understand what had happened. They rested. They camped. They repeatedly Googled the names of colleagues who had not checked in to their usual networks.
It was Anton who finally saw the report at five in the morning two days after the storm: their friends and colleagues, storm researcher Tim Samaras, his son Paul and their research partner Carl Young, had lost their lives to the twister. Camping out in a remote area in Colorado, the Seimons were in shock, trying to make sense of the whole experience. The storm was unprecedented and in the many years that Anton has been a researcher and chaser, no one had lost their life.
Tracie tagged a cactus before leaving the Comanche National Grasslands. On it she wrote:
“Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved. ”Charles Darwin
They drove to Denver to attend their friends’ memorial service. The parking lot looked like a storm chaser convention, packed with trucks and vans with weather research whirly-gigs and scientific doo-dads. The service was packed. In honor of Tim Samaras, whose inspiration for storm chasing had originally come from The Wizard of Oz, “Over the Rainbow” was played.
On the drive home to the East Coast, the Seimons decided to pass through El Reno. Their first stop was Sid’s Diner. Tracie’s tag had been snatched by the storm, though the twine was still intact. They re-traced their route, now marked by rows of leveled houses, trees stripped of their leaves and branches and debris strewn in every direction.
Tracie decided to hang one more Tree Dreams tag near the place where their friends had lost their lives. They pulled over at a wide, open field. Three trees remained standing. Only one, a Juniper, looked like it would actually survive. Wild flowers had bloomed at the base of the tree since the storm passed through just a few days prior. On the tag Tracie wrote:
“If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?” Judy Garland
In memory of Tim and Paul Samaras and Carl Young
When Tracie and Anton tied the tag, the two broke down in tears.
In the face of such extreme weather and the overwhelming fact of how small we are, words can feel insignificant—like the rectangular, cardboard tag that was sucked up into the storm. And yet, ideas and small acts can still buoy us, like a raft. They can never stand up to the terrible size of a tragedy such as this, but they are like the few trees that are still standing in El Reno. They say, ‘I am still here. I matter.’
In an e-mail about her experience, Tracie described it to me this way, “This project that you inspired us to participate in morphed unexpectedly into something of much deeper meaning during the course of our trip. It became so much more than spreading ideas about people’s interconnectedness with nature and relaying a conservation message: we found we were creating a personal connection between the tornado (nature’s awesome power), a surviving tree (nature’s resilience), our friends (living out their dream), and us.
When we first learned that our friends were killed, I really regretted that we were on the same storm that killed them. However, after going back to the spot and tagging that lonely tree, this completely changed, and I actually felt relieved that we were there because it helped me understand what happened and better cope with the loss of our friends. Like you stated so beautifully, it was a small act that buoyed us.”