Erica Wheeler: inspiring connections between people and place

Fall 2011/Loving a Changed Landscape

Fall 2011Loving a Changed Landscape
Two weeks ago, Hurricane Irene blew through here like a great twirling goddess, upending everything she wished, making the rivers change their course, creating entirely new landscapes. All this before lunch!

Our Home

The short version is we came close to losing our home. On my website I state, “We live in the hills of western Massachusetts in a 100-year-old house beside a rushing brook.” That rushing brook has 25-feet-high banks and we felt pretty secure it would not crest. But when it looked like it was about to, we evacuated. What happened was not a crested brook, but a widened one. The powerful flow of water gouged out land to widen the brook times three. This put our house dangerously close to the edge of the bank, close to an outcome that we know now, was the fate of many homes just like ours.

Because we live near a bridge we were able to get help reinforcing the bank. They came for three days. Strong, capable, gentle and, yes, really handsome guys reinforced our bank. First they cut down trees and built a road across the bank to get down to the river. Then came dump truck after dump truck of rip-rap from Deerfield, Massachusetts, and Anthony (our Top-Gun guy!) worked in the river with his “bigger than our whole house” tractor crane.

We feel very, very grateful, safe and secure. But also a bit dazed. Our sweet little corner of the world has now changed. Half of our yard is still forest, stream and stream-worn boulders. But the other half looks like a man-made, industrial landscape. This has brought up lots of feelings and questions for me.

Learning to love a changed landscape

As someone who writes about connecting to one’s sense of place -- how do I now connect to a changed landscape? When I ask this question to myself, it echoes. For I know there are so many people all over the country, and the globe who are asking this same question, from the tsunami victims in Japan, to the wildfire-charred neighborhoods in Texas, to looking back from the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. And as long as disasters, both natural and man-made continue, we will continue to be faced with this question.

From the storm’s destruction came the rivers creation. I could see she had done a beautiful job re-channeling and re-carving the bank. And one of the first things I noticed was a new smell. It was the sweet, sweet smell of fresh, rich, beautiful living earth. It was irresistible. And yet we needed to push back to save our house. That brings up a conflict in me.

I have always been an Edward Abbey (read the “Monkey Wrench Gang”) kind of blow up the dams, free all the rivers and bring back the salmon kind of girl. I’ve always thought that trying to control nature was a bad idea. I know nature is always changing and creating new landscapes, but even when it’s destructive for us, it looks like part of a natural process. When we change landscapes it can look sterile. Jarring and out of harmony with what I call “the music of a place.”

Now there’s literal example of “new music” right outside my window: half forest and curving stream, half engineered straight stream and barren looking riprap. How can I work with this place and restore a feeling of harmony? I understand it’s a long process, but I am actually excited about the possibilities.

This hurricane turned many of my thoughts and ideas topsy-turvy. I see ATV’s now and I think “good idea!” I see road construction and think “thank you!” I look out the window and replace the thought “jarring” with “safe” and “grateful.” This storm has widened the rivers, but it has also widened my perspective. That might be the most useful tool of all going forward.

Seven ways that helped me through the storm:

1. Count your blessings. This was what we did in bed the first night. After we’d hiked the two miles over the remains of collapsed roads and bridges to see the house still standing, we counted our blessings. All of them.

2. Seek out beauty.A few days after the storm I made a play date with our friends’ girls, just to do something fun and away from our river valley. Together we made fairy houses in the woods out of mushrooms, berries and bark, because, I explained “maybe some fairies had lost their homes in the storm and would appreciate some new furniture.” It was a blissful afternoon, just to spend time playing in nature and connecting with the magic that surrounds us every day. The picture above is of the “Fairy Falafel Cafe.”

3. Embrace community. We feel so grateful and enriched by our friends both new and old. From the neighbors who gave us lifts in their off-road vehicles up our damaged roads, to all the people who worked to repair our roads, bridges and riverbanks. And for our friends who took us in that first night and fed us vegetable stew from their garden, with peaches, raspberries, blackberries and pears for dessert. And for our other hilltop friends who made a special, true Thanksgiving style feast for us and some other friends and fellow storm survivors. We’ve survived a hell of a storm and our sense of community is stronger because of it.

4. Remember your body. A friend asked if I had done anything to take care of my physical self after the storm and I hadn’t thought about that. There is some out-of-body feeling that goes on when you go through something like this. I took a hot bath. I made an appointment with my acupuncturist. I went for a walk. I was glad I did these small, important, helpful things. They were grounding and created a bit of normalcy too

5. Write your story. If you have lived through a disaster or changed landscape, WRITE YOUR STORY. It doesn’t matter if anyone else reads it, but you need to tell your story, every part of it you can remember. It’s healing to tell your story. There’s something about humans that need to do this, so don’t keep it bottled inside. Just start with what happened. You don’t have to understand it yet or have anything insightful to say. Just write it out in the order it happened. This will release you from having to hold it all inside, or worse, to tell it to people who don’t understand what your experience means to you.

6. Stay in compassion. Where I had an attitude before about what I valued as right and wrong, I now have a widened heart. I have compassion for both the river’s needs and my own and hope we can work together somehow. This experience has, in a very “in your face” kind of way, increased my compassion for our world and for our choices. For all the beauty and ugliness, for all our good and bad ideas. Now when I approach what I think about land, people, place and conservation, I believe I’ll do so with a more understanding heart.

7. One more thing. My partner’s parents sent us a card with the Zen Buddhist saying, “Barn burned down, now I can see the moon.” Tonight after dinner we stood looking over the river, across the bank to where the trees are now gone... and behold, there on the horizon was the big, almost full moon. With more sky and less trees, we saw it rising clearly into view.

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updated: 5 years ago