Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Painting like my life depends upon it, by Robin Boucher with Suzi Gablik

I am painting trees as if my life depends on it. I often feel like the world is so full of blind cowards these days, people who are unwilling to connect with their emotions and properly react. Denial is a survival mechanism, however, when it comes to denying the facts surrounding continued use of fossil fuels, there is no survival associated with it.

I started painting trees back in late August when Carolyn Deck, an artist from Floyd County, Virginia sent information to a group I’m in touch with about Aviva Rahmanis community based, eco-art project titled Blued Trees. Rahmanis straightforward and doable eco-art project, designed to stop a pipeline in New York state, was inspiring and more approachable than a resistance art project I had planned to launch on my own. As the Mountain Valley Pipeline proposal gathered steam in our region, and the powers that be at EQT/Next Era, the company overseeing the development of the MVP project, continued to “mess with our heads” by proposing a fourth “better” alternative through our community, I realized that it was now or never that I needed to do something.

Many people would probably call me a “tree-hugger.” But really I’m more than a tree hugger. Looking back two generations, half of my family were farmers, and another quarter lived off the rocky land of southern Italy. All I say and do revolves around how I can be a better steward of the land through my daily choices...a direct evolution from the deep genetic connection my ancestors had to place.

As the product of a mid-twentieth century upwardly mobile family, moving from city to city was a common occurrence. By the time I was 10 I had moved 9 times and was happy when we finally landed in my grandparents’ hometown along a lovely slice of land on Sarah’s Creek, a tributary of the York River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Living there for multiple years afforded me the privilege of watching small trees grow. One tree I jumped over every day after school, until one day, I couldn’t anymore because it had grown too tall. There were oaks all around our home, and the sound of acorns falling on the roof in the fall meant that it was a good year for squirrels. I began to connect to place.

When I was in my teens the riparian landscapes along Sarah’s Creek were developed with condominiums, docks, and the subsequent watercraft that followed this type of building. Our sweet little estuaries were gone. Lost were the trees and secret places my sister and I would row to in our wooden boat, hand built by my grandfather. After that happened, I realized my placehad thus changed beyond recognition and I needed to seek connection elsewhere.

Backpacking throughout the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah Valley helped me to find the center of my world again. It was on these trips as a young woman that I realized that all I really needed was in the forest. Eventually I landed in the Alleghany Mountains of Virginia on a heavily wooded little hill at the base of Brush Mountain. Chinkapin Hill was so named because in the 1950’s and 1960’s people throughout the community came here to pick the Alleghany chinkapin, a close relative to the American chestnut, but less susceptible to blight. It is here I built my home by hand, created a permaculture landscape, grew organic vegetables, raised my babies, taught scores of children about connecting with the environment through art, painted the landscape, and lived among a mixed hardwood forest that has grown older along with me.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline is not the first time I’ve encountered proposed destruction within our region. In the 1990’s I helped to spearhead resistance against an interstate, and a 765 kV powerline. The two years of intense work on these projects helped me cut my teeth as a community activist. What I learned was that there was always going to be sacrifice, and that no one initially won when you were trying to shift paradigms. But I also know in hindsight, that if you can live the life you want to support then the shift does happen...but it often takes decades.

But we don’t have decades anymore.

Suzi Gablik wrote about what artists can do, what we MUST do to aid in paradigm shifts within our community, ecology, and morality in her seminal book The Reenchantment of Art (Thames and Hudson, 1992). According to Suzi,

Art moved by empathic attunement, not tied to an art-historical logic but orienting us to the cycles of life, helps us to recognize that we are part of an interconnected web that ultimately we cannot dominate. Such art begins to offer a completely different way of looking at the world(p. 88).

I was studying for my M.F.A. in visual art when I first heard Suzi speak, and it was her words and her writing which inspired me to shift focus from my studio work to community work. And it was during a regional fight against an interstate highway project that I met Suzi and had the privilege of continuing the dialogue she began in her book. And even more fortuitous, Suzi moved to our community and we have been friends for two decades. Through this friendship I have had the chance to build on her writings, with our conversations.

During our last meeting she asked me how things were going with the pipeline resistance. I told her about all of the lies we have been fed from EQT/NextEra, and how helpless so many feel in being able to enact any change.

When I asked her about her thoughts on the pipeline project and what it meant for our community she became grave. “Even though we’ve past the tipping point, saving what’s left of the Earth remains our utmost responsibility and the task of our conscience. Faced with the impossible, our conscience requires that we continue to work at it the best we can. It’s like reparations after war, we owe this to the world that we have so devastated and harmed.”

Building a pipeline that transports fracked fossil fuels is both unsustainable and ultimately devastating. It perpetuates a mythology that we can have everything we want whenever we want it. That the price the earth pays, what we pay... is worth it...so we can have everything and more.

We need to redefine everythingas a society. 

Building a 42 inch natural gas pipeline through steep mountainous terrains, wilderness areas, national forests, historical communities, groundwater recharge regions, cave conservancies, neighborhoods, contiguous unbroken forest lands, agricultural areas, scenic rivers, and national byways, is happening throughout Virginia and throughout the world. Its not just our commonwealth that will lose if these pipelines are built, but the world.

Remember, all backyards are connected.

So I am painting trees because my family’s life depends on the cool, clean, fresh water which we get from our well. I am painting trees because the people who have chosen to live in this community, enjoy breathing clean air and seeing the Milky Way on clear nights. I am painting trees to remind the world that solar power is a transitional power source that should be heavily focused on in this new world we are entering. I am painting trees for all of the people who have fracking wells in their communities.
I am painting trees because it is an act of beauty in the face of defiance. A reminder that we don’t have to trash our landscape in order to live well.

I am painting trees because doing so creates a visual connection to the places we will lose should a bulldozer come over our ridges and plough through our valleys.

Painting trees is meditative and permits deep connection to place. Painting trees allows me to breath in the face of grief, and ultimately to visualize the change that must happen.

And as my good friend Lauren said, “painting trees is like painting protective prayers in our forests.” And right now, our forests, our land, our world certainly could use a good prayer. Surely there is no harm in using prayers when faced with a seemingly an insurmountable task.

Robin Scully Boucher, Chinkapin Hill, Blacksburg, Virginia 


  1. Thank you for writing this, for lending heart and hands to Aviva's project, and for quoting Suzi's powerful words. Please give her my love. It's been 20 years since I've seen her. Please tell her that we're doing what we can here in Seattle, and there's some hope that our resistance movements, with art and heart woven into them, are shifting things little by little.
    -Beverly Naidus

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  2. Hi. How are the trees sustaining the blue paint? Isn't 5hat poisonous?
    No malice intended. Just concerned. Jessica Moore, Belfast , Maine. moorejessica215@yahoo.com

  3. I want to know more. How can painting trees stop a pipeline?