One dune's disappearance has personal impact

The multi-tentacled reach of Hurricane Sandy - from the flooded subways of New York City to the snowbound villages of West Virginia, from the obliterated Jersey Shore razzmatazz to our battered local beach communities - has even touched a small painting hanging in my living room.

Because of the intense confluence of energy that whipped across this part of the Earth on Oct. 29, I can never see this painting the same way. The simple, serene beauty I once saw on this canvas now sends a more sobering message.

My friend Roxanne Steed painted it during that snowy winter two years ago, trudging across a whitened Waterford Town Beach to the far eastern end to capture a shapely sand dune in winter with her camera and sketchbook. Back in her studio in Mystic, her brushstrokes depicted the dune, rising 12 feet with trees crowning its crest, recast as an Arctic slope, tufts of beach grass poking through the snow toward a turquoise sky.

I'm naturally drawn to snowscapes, the way fresh flakes transform fields and forest floors into crisp white canvases for vivid shadows. Snow-covered beaches always seem to surprise my eyes, as if sand and surf and snow are elements that aren't ever supposed to meet.

That large, muscular dune built up over decades as tides from two sides of the barrier beach - Alewife Cove on the north and Long Island Sound to the south - washed countless grains of sand into a commanding shoulder that anchored the far end of this beloved public place with a kind of natural sculpture. Hurricane Sandy's surge washed it all away in the span of a few hours.

True, dunes by nature are transient landscape features, gaining, losing and shifting contours as the seasons change. But here in the Northeast, we're more accustomed to incremental differences, not the kind of sudden, violent upheavals of the earthquakes and volcanoes that cluster along Earth's Ring of Fire.

Lately, though, it's becoming more obvious that natural and developed places we might hold as comforting fixtures in our minds are being suddenly altered with regularity by extreme weather events. The days when long intervals would pass between intense hurricanes now seem a cycle of the past, replaced by freak weather events occurring once or more a year.

Just since the start of this decade, there have been the floods of 2010, the snowy winter of 2010-11, Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm of 2011, and now, Hurricane Sandy. The rising sea levels and accumulating greenhouse gases enveloping our planet in an ever-thickening blanket are not just making the kinds of incremental changes to ecosystems that might make climate change seem like tomorrow's problem. It's reshaping our world in dramatic ways right now.

Roxanne told me she's been reflecting since the storm, too, about what the reality of climate change means for damaged coastal communities. The seas are pushing inward, storms are packing unusual power, and trying to rebuild things as they were seems more foolhardy every day. As an artist, she said, she has a renewed commitment to the value of documenting landscapes at a point in time. It's a vehicle for appreciating what too many of us take for granted, and, perhaps, calling attention to the notion that because of climate change, these places are not secure.

Maybe next time you visit your favorite park, beach or forest, think about it not being there, or about it being severely altered by extreme weather. Maybe that's already happened. Savor the peace and beauty you find in this space, but also let it remind you of what's at stake if we continue to ignore climate change.

That's the new message of my dune painting. It'll keep its place in my living room but never look at it quite the same.

This is the opinion of Judy Benson.

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