The Aesthetics of Disaster: On Flooding and Fire in Colorado

Two weeks ago, my corner of the world was flooded. It rained and rained and rained. Rivers and creeks swelled above their banks and beyond their normal courses, carving out whole new paths through mountain canyons, suburban neighborhoods, and trailer parks. Along the way, these newly wild waters took much with them: hillsides, boulders, roads, houses, animals, and people.

Living a disaster is not the same as viewing one. Lived disaster is ambiguous. It is simultaneously confusing and crystal clear. Its discomfort is not mediated by images nor soothed by geographic distance. The aesthetics of disaster are raw in both natural and cultural states. This is the indifferent violence of a nature that doesn’t care about you. The turbulence of emotions that will not settle, that swirl about like rapids, foaming, bubbling, then dissipating and taking new form—from fear to euphoria to guilt to relief and more.

This is a story of destruction and recovery, not of beauty. Why then are the aesthetics of disaster so sublime?

Colorado is now an official disaster zone. FEMA is here. The Vice President was here. The National Guard. Rescue helicopters. Closed roads. ID checkpoints . Requirements to boil drinking water in some communities; to not flush toilets in others. Fundraisers to raise both money and spirits. In some areas things remain a surreal scene of devastation. In other areas it appears as if nothing really happened at all. We are now in the aftermath of the flooding, and yet things are still not over. There was a beginning, but the end appears elusive.

Thousands of homes were damaged and hundreds destroyed. Untold numbers of families were evacuated and are now displaced, refugees seeking shelter in a tight housing market, trying to figure out how to get their kids to school or themselves to work or back to their houses to check on them, to gather their possessions, to collect themselves, to find community. Wondering when they will be able to go home.

Depending on which news sources you read, either 8 or 10 people are confirmed dead because of the flooding. Over 30,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into flooded areas. 50 bridges and 200 miles of roads were destroyed. We now have waterfalls in places where there were not waterfalls before.

It is not beautiful. It is beautiful. It looks as if these waterfalls were always meant to be here.

Experiences of the flooding are both individual and collective. Much revolves around asking if others are OK and being “OK” oneself. Being grateful one’s situation is not too bad; being grateful one is only dealing with a flooded basement, with mold, with backed-up sewage, with carpet or drywall that needs to be ripped out, with insurance companies who will pay for damage to one thing but not another. Damaged paint, yes; door frames, no.

Even those folks who are displaced or whose homes are gone are OK. They are alive, they will get by, they will go back, they will rebuild. This is both true and it is also what is required. It is what you are supposed to say.

Me, my family, my house, we are all OK. We live up high above Boulder, above where the flooding took place so we were impacted in a different way: we can no longer get to Boulder. The road is gone. It literally washed away in several places. This road was—and still is, I presume—gorgeous. It is a mountain road, one that takes you through a canyon from 9,000 feet in elevation to 5,000 feet in a 30 minute drive.

In the aftermath of the flood, my 30 minute drive to work at the University of Colorado became a one hour 45 minute detour through the old mining/current gaming towns of Central City and Blackhawk, then the CoorsBreweryLand that is Golden, on up to campus in Boulder. Several days later another route was opened to mountain residents only—ID please, thank you ma’am—which takes me through Sunshine Canyon and the teeny mountain town of Gold Hill which greets you with a sign announcing “GOLD HILL—Est. 1859, Elev. 8463, Pop. 118, TOTAL 10440.” This new route takes one hour 15 minutes to campus, a meditative but draining line of cars snaking its way up and down the mountains, more cars than this road was ever designed for, the road itself damaged by the flooding but holding up.

These are stunning roads through Rocky Mountain forests. Pine trees as far as the eye can see. Aspen groves just starting to blaze yellow for the fall. Dramatic snow-covered peaks in the near distance. Beautiful, winding, steep, mindful mountain roads.

But this is not a story about the beauty of these roads.

My new route home takes me into The Burn Zone. This is our local vernacular for the area burned during the Fourmile Fire in September 2010. Over eleven days, 6,181 acres of forest and 169 homes burned. This road now offers a different aesthetic. Thousands of acres of charred pine trees. Stone outlines of what were once houses. Fireplaces standing tall and alone. It is a desolate and scarred landscape. To escape flooded, landslide-ridden roads, I now drive through a road that was once on fire.

In anthropology and elsewhere around the academy, the aesthetics of disaster seems to center on ruins. This is often a tale of beautiful dilapidation of the built environment, of the poignancy of abandonment or disrepair, of nostalgia, both examples and critiques of 21st century “ruin porn” (think Detroit).

In an insightful piece about post-Katrina New Orleans, photographer Aric Meyer writes about an alternative to mainstream documentary journalism’s efforts to generate either empathy and/or a sense of experience via catastrophe photography. Instead, Meyer suggests a return to a Kantian sense of the sublime—“an aesthetic recognition of a natural reality that is incomprehensible and also incommunicable.” In his photos, he attempts to “dispel the binary of good nature versus bad nature and to give the viewer no easy out.” And thus:

“By neither relieving nor assigning moral culpability, these landscapes are intentionally ambiguous. They are at once beautiful and disturbing. To an audience that is used to having its moral positions clarified and repeated by the media it consumes, this experience of ambiguity in the face of a national catastrophe is uncomfortable” (“Aesthetics of Catastrophe,” Aric Meyer, Public Culture, vol. 20, no. 2, 2008)

Meyer calls this “aesthetic friction.” Such friction can be uncomfortable, unsettling, and this might be a good thing. I agree, although I like my friction with less suffering involved.

Here lies the difference between viewing and living. Viewing from afar is not the same as living a disaster. My flood-induced detour through The Burn Zone is one of no easy way out. Not geographically, not culturally, not aesthetically. It is a problem temporarily solved. It is confirmation that things are or will be OK. This is neither to recant nor to reinvent a cultural system (as some anthropologists of disaster have suggested), but to participate in it, to be structured by the feelings, customs, and institutions of one’s own community including those which provide only insufficient responses to disaster. It is to regroup when beauty falls out. And then to reconfigure beauty in a time of crisis.

Driving through one landscape of ruins to avoid another feels surreal. It is a practical response to disaster. It is a reminder of the power of nature, of both fire and water. The aesthetics of disaster is all of this and more. It is sublime. Majestic. Horrific. Incomprehensible. Incommunicable. Disaster is a refiguring of the natural and the cultural world. It is a lived form of ambiguity composed of a cruel, un-tangleable mix of uncertainty and clarity.

It is, and is not, OK.

Carole McGranahan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. She is (I am) grateful to a group of especially insightful and generous friends for their thoughts on this piece: Ann Armbrecht, Alex Golub, Kristin Stevens, and Jay Stott, evacuated from his home in Lyons, Colorado and currently working the line “the river doesn’t care” into one of his next songs. Thanks all.

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

6 thoughts on “The Aesthetics of Disaster: On Flooding and Fire in Colorado

  1. Carole, this is fantastic. Thank you.

    I’ve been watching events in Boulder (where I have family) with a detached sense of horror: yes, everyone I know is “OK,” but it is uncomfortably surreal to recognize photos of familiar places transformed by water and mud and fire. You are right — it is not at all the same as being there.

  2. Wonderfully done. Reminds me of reading Kant on the beautiful and the sublime and Terry Eagleton’s _The Ideology of the Aesthetic_. For those of a theological disposition, Rudolph Otto’s _The Idea of the Holy_. For those with more literary tastes, Percy Walker, _The Message in the Bottle_, especially chapter 4, “The Man on the Train,” about how the world changes for someone who has survived a train wreck. So many memories.

  3. Thanks for articulating this so well on levels that academics and laypeople can appreciate, both near and far. I sold my home in Lefthand last fall, after 12 years in that canyon and 30 years in Boulder County overall, including 12 in Eldora. It looks like the house in Lefthand and my neighbors came through okay, but I’m glad I’m not an absentee landlord. Feels strange. Sorry I’m NOT there in solidarity.

  4. Your prose and your topic rise at times to the poetic. I think, overall, your observations and writing are exceptionally moving. Because I live in the burn zone, I’d like to comment on the Kali effect as well. Kali is a Hindu goddess who not only represents the destructive aspect of nature’s power, but also its regenerative forces. It is Kali who prods Shiva into the next cycle of creation. She is therefore a paradoxical figure of both destruction and rebirth. As one who survived the fire and many hurricanes on my island home in Florida before moving to Colorado, I have some obsevations of Sunshine that might bring hope to those who are undergoing the destructive effects of flooding now. When I look at Sunshine today, I see sweeping green meadows filled with wildflowers where once a thick, unhealthy tangle of forest stood. I see more expansive Colorado mountain vistas. I see many newer, safer, better designed,environmentally sensitive homes that have replaced aging houses with rambling architecture and few energy saving features. Millions of dollars went into this canyon to cut burned trees or trees that had died from drought, disease, or overcrowding. Government and volunteers seeded the hills with wild flowers and shorter varities of native grasses that are more easily managed if fire breaks out. Man facilitated nature’s relentless will to live in a manner that brought greater safety and security to residents and wildlife. I saw many of the same kinds of interventions and regeneration in Florida after flooding and wind damage scarred her sublime beachscapes and cities. Destruction by water or by fire also brings resurrection. We are blessed in Boulder with scientists, engineers, foresters, and politicians who facilitate nature’s longing to regenerate what she has destroyed.

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