May 19, 2016
I’ve been reading a book by John Copeland Nagle called Law’s Environment. Nagle is a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School. He writes about how the environments we live in are shaped by complex systems of law that control how we use and what we value in different landscapes. To a novice like me this web of environmental law is far too complex to fully understand, but I can understand Nagle’s point that the interaction of multiple legal environmental rulings both shape our use of various environments and also help interpret what a given landscape means to us.
In Nagle’s chapter on the Susquehanna River that flows from New York state down through Pennsylvania, and on through Maryland to the Chesapeake Bay, Nagle quotes officials in Maryland’s Calvert County who say of the Susquehanna that, “the majority of the people don’t even know that it exists.” Then Nagle goes on to make a simple but poignant observation, “All along the river, buildings face the street, not the river.”
This, it seems to me, gets at everything that we need to change about how we relate to our waterways. Regardless of which way buildings may face, we all need to learn to face our rivers. It was while we were facing the other way that we allowed our rivers to be degraded by pollution. As we looked the other way we allowed the land development that has led to new levels of flooding. For many of us then our rivers have become factors of disgust and dread. This threatening imaginary grew because we turned our backs to our rivers.
My undertaking, to paint the Fox River from Dundee to Ottawa is all about patiently and consistently facing the River. I cannot promise any great artistic or environmental revelation as I do so. But I am facing the River. Perhaps that is the fundamental requirement of our present ecological situation. Our first and most important environmental responsibility: turn and face the River.