by Marissa Lingen
On March 29, 1998, my college was hit by an F3 tornado. It was one of the earliest tornados on record for that region of the world—certainly one of the earliest of that strength. We expect tornados—well, now. Summer, as this issue of Analog is coming out, is tornado season. March in Minnesota sees several inches of snow in a typical year, not funnel clouds. In 1998, the average person wasn’t yet talking about “climate change” as a replacement for “global warming,” because we weren’t yet clear on how weird the weather was going to get. This was just one outlier, but wow, did it outlie.
Most of the students, myself included, were gone on spring break. If you’ve ever seen Midwestern college students—and adults who should know better—yawn and roll their eyes and fail to react to tornado sirens because they’ve heard it all before and it never meant anything, you probably understand how many lives that saved. No one associated with the college died. The buildings weren’t so lucky. Neither were the trees. We’re a rural Minnesota campus with a large arboretum. One of the first things I did in freshman orientation was run off to the arboretum to get some time alone away from all the people. So did my best friend. We met by being the girls who fled to the forest and ran into each other halfway through our green and solitary rambles, and we haven’t let go of each other since.
We lost two thousand trees the day of the tornado.
Two thousand trees, including the one I used to climb next to the chemistry building, with the perfect crook for perching in and reading unnoticed. The observatory on the top of my beloved physics building, a couple of the oil paintings I was doing in my art class, one friend’s entire dorm room and his family home (he was a townie), the oldest dorm building on campus in its entirety, my late-teens faith that institutions would protect the people they claimed to be working for . . . well. It’s a partial list. When I read Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster last year, I recognized the patterns I’d learned at 19, in the aftermath of the tornado. The astonishing response on the ground from individuals—professors and staff helping each other in the practical, immediate ways in which they needed help, students pitching in to help restore their community—all of it looked just like Solnit described from the larger, better-known disasters. So did the distrust of that behavior, the counterproductive restrictions, and the panic from the people who considered themselves to be in charge.
It’s taken me twenty years to be in a place where I can write about it. “Left to Take the Lead,” in the July/August issue of Analog, is the first time I’ve written about a tornado. About putting your hand on the splinters of the trees you love, smelling them in the air, having to step around them, about, emotionally, what it means. Trying to make sense of it, and of the people around you in the face of it, and of where your life is going next, with all the upheavals of your personal life intersecting a world that won’t hold still.
Earth is a bizarre place to spend your early adulthood. Most of everyday life, people seem to have agreed to pretend it’s not, because it’s what they did too. It’s a hazing ritual we all lived through, adolescence on Earth, so you just all sort of go with it, but every once in awhile you’ll find someone who’s willing to lean in and say, no, you’re totally right, I see it too, it’s the strangest thing and getting stranger by the minute. The late Douglas Adams was one. This is not a story in Douglas Adams’s tradition in any other way. But there is that: Isn’t it weird here? It’s okay that you can see it. I see it too.
“Left to Take the Lead” is set in the same universe as last month’s “Finding Their Footing.” It’s the same setting as “Vulture’s Nest,” in the May/June 2017 issue of Analog, and “Blue Ribbon,” in the March 2015 issue of Analog. “Blue Ribbon” has since been reprinted in Lightspeed and, delightfully for me, Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction—I love to speak to readers of all ages. Tor.com also featured a story in this setting, “Points of Origin.” The difference is that all of those other stories in this setting took place off Earth. I think that astute readers will be able to find points of thematic continuity, places where I’m playing with ideas on a spectrum. But this one goes into the heart; this one comes back to Earth.
I’m not done with what I learned from the tornado. I’m not done with the character of Holly, either. She’s got a long way to go, and I’m finally ready to go there with her. Everything I learned about the dislocation of loss, how quickly things can change, and how deeply strange it is to grow up on Earth is going with her.
Marissa Lingen is the author of more than a hundred short stories, including several previous publications in Analog. She lives in the Minneapolis suburbs with two large men and one small dog. She can be found online at http://www.marissalingen.com or on twitter @MarissaLingen.