Art and the Great Flood

For many years I spent a lot of time in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, on land with river frontage on a flood plain. Major floods supposedly came once every forty years or so. In practice, that meant twice a year, in a bad year. One learned to listen for the sound of rising water. It tore at everything in its path, rushing past with a roar: a frightening, wild sound that would not allow sleep. One waited anxiously: how high up the hill would the waters rise? Surely the house would always be safe. Wouldn't it? One year, the flood came almost all the way up the hill we counted on for safety. We knew others whose homes were damaged severely.

The next morning, if there had been sleep at all, one woke dreading the first look outside. Still, one had to look. It was almost a moral obligation to confront that which one did not want to know. (A lot like painting.) The result was always devastation. (Not at all like painting.) It took time to learn the full extent of the destruction. Inevitably, the riverfront was reshaped, often drastically. Doesn't that happen to our lives, too, sometimes? In the worst floods, land simply vanished, carved away by the torrent. Other times, the aftermath of destruction laid open new vistas, suddenly bare of trees. The reshaped views looked strange at first. Sometimes it seemed that there was something not entirely bad about the spareness. Still, one never quite got used to it.

I miss the way the riverfront used to be. Way back when, before the floods, I took pictures - never dreaming they'd become precious. No matter how many more years pass, I will never again gaze up-river along the seventh bend of the Shenandoah and see it look the way it used to. Painting it is the only way I know to bring it back.

One tree, old and grand, survived a particularly bad flood only by a knob of painfully exposed roots. The next flood tore the tree away entirely. One of the worst floods came on my father's birthday. The aftermath looked like a war zone - trees broken like match-sticks, debris strewn everywhere. A few days before, the terrain had been beautiful, idyllic - like parkland, or a nature reserve - shaped and preserved by his constant care. Now it was gone, all of it. My father and I made our way through the detritus, one step at a time, in silence.

Life is like the floods, it seems to me. Life may seem destroyed; then afterward, one slowly perceives new vistas. Sometimes, the new terrain reveals only great loss. What is gone will never return. Other times the views are cleaner, simpler than before, and ultimately one finds a certain relief. Perhaps that relief represents only the cessation of pain. But sometimes, maybe, it is more - the promise of new life. We all hope that, don't we?

And sometimes one is just left picking one's way through the destruction.

Do you paint about the floods in your own life? Me, I avoid it - I fight it as hard as I can, but eventually it comes out, regardless. Can't stop it. How about you?

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