Monday, November 26, 2012

An unseen river must yet flow



This morning I woke again to the whining of chain saws; it is one month to the day since Hurricane Sandy hit the Mid-Atlantic coast. Hundreds of people are still coping with losses and displacement, which can seem mind-boggling to the many thousands (like me) who were shaken up by being severely inconvenienced. It is a cold and dark time of year to be without heat, light, shelter.

I live away from the coast and about 200 feet above the Delaware River - on the map, it's that part of western New Jersey that seems cinched at the waist, where the Delaware River heads SE from SW. There wasn't much rain in the hurricane here, it was primarily a wind storm of unprecedented duration for its strength. I was afraid that night for the trees overhanging my home and my studio, and I'm grateful that those trees weren't damaged, and neither were our buildings. But other trees fell, including across our road out, and we were without power at home for 5 days, for a week in Lambertville, where my studio is located.

I'd thought the forecasts were being hyperbolic, but we were prepared for some time without power; we had water, canned foods, candles, flashlights, and a small generator to keep the refrigerator and freezer sufficiently cold. However, the storm was more powerful and more devastating than I'd believed it would be, and we lost all phone service, including cell phones, and internet cable service. I'd been planning for two months to dedicate this very week, following a performance, to another "home-made residency," an intensive work week in the studio, and now I couldn't get there at all; for much of my days I was occupied with keeping warm, keeping food cold, doing in the rapidly shortening daylight what had to get done, and feeling very cut off. I hardly even knew how much worse it was for others, but had heard a bit, enough to arouse my guilty feelings about how irritated I was.

As days passed, I started to feel dread of the darkness and the cold as the afternoon light fell. All around me, people were becoming tired and depressed, myself included. At the end, when power was back, I had lost my dedicated week, and some trees, but nothing more. It was amazing, the instantaneous response I felt, the release of the anxiety from my lungs like an expelled breath. I was profoundly, unutterably grateful that my life could resume, with nothing more lost, just some time that I might have spent at work, on paintings that don't matter, to anyone but me, anyway. The thought that my lost time at work mattered so little, signalling depression, had me sifting thoughts for ideas to move me forward. 

The restoration of power soon was followed by internet service, the tree was removed from our road, and my life could return to normal as soon as my mood could. But that last was an effort, knowing how much suffering there was still along the coasts. Chorus rehearsals resumed too, that helps. And because of that, I was impelled to attend a concert in Princeton, performed by the chamber chorus, Tenebrae. That concert in Princeton really lifted my leaden heart. In the opening chords, I felt my resistence soften and some tears fell all around me. I'd been all bottled up and wondering what to do about it. During the concert, I got some good drawing time in too. I took out my pencil and sketchbook, not knowing what I was going to draw, and discovered what was going to be the most compelling way for me to visualize all that the experience had held. That night I had a dream that I'd been photographing outside, and the following day, I went out to take photos.

Where I live, downed trees, their roots still gripping soil, lie on their sides by the hundreds; not small trees, very few ancient ones - mostly they are the tall, healthy, middle-aged, still in their prime, being cut into logs to be split and burnt. Heaps of logs, more than most people can use, are stacked at the roadsides, marked "FREE." 

The day after the concert was sunny, and I went all over my township, photographing the trees, mostly the upended wads of roots. The tragedy of our forests' losses might seem small to some, but to me it was visceral. I posted some of these photos in a previous post here on my blog. The next day was not so bright, and I went out again and took many more photos, some here in this post.

The beautiful red clay soil, the imprint of stones, the knitted roots exposed to light and air, seemed more and more to connect with my empathy for the families and communities along the New York and New Jersey coasts, people who'd lost homes and personal belongings, and many artists whose work was damaged by flooding. I photographed the roots and imagined that in the spring, rain will wash the soil away, and in the crevices between their roots, birds and insects, small mammals and fungi will find shelter; in the depressions where those roots were lifted, puddles will form, frogs and salamanders will lay their eggs. But until then, we have the bright winter days, and the naked crowns of trees can't shield the dying roots from exposure to the frozen air.

Here follow some images of drawings on paper with pencil, and other drawings I made with my iPad, along with some more photo studies of the exposed roots, just a few of the many thousands in our fallen forests. I have to thank the members of Tenebrae for breaking open the wall so I could find a way to encompass all my feelings about this event in just a few sketches.

[As always, you can click on the first image and open it up to a slideshow of larger images.]

























 

2 comments:

  1. A very powerful and moving post, Ravenna. It shows how art––writing, drawing, photography––can help heal, and help transform tragedy into an enduring poetry.

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    1. thank you, I appreciate that comment, Altoon.

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