One of the fan mail comments I most enjoy receiving has to do with the places in which my novels are set. In most cases, that’s Cornwall, England, which is kind of my second home…at least in my heart. The comment is this: “I don’t need to go to Cornwall now; I feel I’ve already been there in your books.”
I may be a bit unusual among authors in this regard but to me the physical setting of a story is a central character: make it come alive and the reader becomes a companion of the other characters living in and responding to that vivid and often defining setting. That’s especially true in Cornwall, an ancient landscape full of history and wild natural beauty.
The wonderful nineteenth century English landscape painter, John Constable, once wrote: “We see nothing until we truly understand it.” This curious observation seems almost backward: you’d think a painter of landscapes would be focused on the visual. But Constable understood what many of us miss: that the underlying structure and shape of a landscape has a fundamental, even controlling effect on how we experience it.
Recently, and for the first time, I drove through the eastern half of Washington, my home state. Unlike the western half, which is lushly green and often misty, the eastern half, through which the mighty Columbia River flows, is arid. Except where it is irrigated, this is a world of barren sagelands and bizarre, towering volcanic cliffs. It is almost surreal. But what is it that makes it so utterly different from anywhere else in Washington State or, for that matter, the entire West?
The answer is: the most catastrophic flood in perhaps the earth’s entire history.
It happened during the last Ice Age, roughly fifteen thousand years ago. A glacier hundreds of feet high blocked what is now called the Clark Fork River and water backed up into Idaho and Montana. How much water? The lake—called Missoula Lake by geologists—was 200 miles long, 2,000 feet deep, and held 500 cubic miles of water. That’s more than several of today’s Great Lakes.
Then the dam broke.
In the span of what is estimated to be only 48 hours all of that water raced west and south, between 17 and 60 cubic kilometers of water per hour at a speed of up to 80 miles per hour. It ripped through eastern Washington tearing up the landscape, stripping away topsoil, digging valleys hundreds of feet deep, exposing massive cliffs of volcanic basalt, and hurtling house-sized boulders all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Portland, Oregon, for example, would have been under 400 feet of water had it existed then. Geologists now speculate that this catastrophe occurred not once but several times, utterly reshaping and gouging out a landscape that today consists of deep, bone-dry valleys bounded by cliffs of columnar basaltic rock (which look like the pipes of a church organ), dry waterfalls hundreds of feet deep, and vast areas that look like the ripples in a sand bar, except those ripples are thirty or more feet high and run for miles.
In much of the rest of the world, the history of the landscape is hidden beneath layers of soil and thick vegetation…but not in Eastern Washington. There, the earth remains naked, the unimaginable destruction on full view. Driving through it, awestruck at every turn, I wished I could have been there to see the spectacle…but of course I’d have been killed in moments, as was every other living thing that had the misfortune of being in the way.
Pictures are said to be worth a thousand words, but the pictures of this landscape today beggar description and cannot hope to capture the sheer scale of this epic destruction. Here are some links to give you a sense of the catastrophe wreaked by this event. The landscape is tortured; it is nearly beyond comprehension.
So today, at home, look around the landscape where you live and remember what Constable said: “We see nothing until we truly understand it.”
What story does your home landscape tell?