On the White Water Sands by Theodore Clement Steele. (Photo: Wickliff Auctioneers)

I’ve stopped near these waters before, after spring throws a tantrum, trying to wash away all memories of winter, leaving behind so much debris and sand it takes bulldozers and road graders to clear low-lying roads. And I’ve passed by here in the midst of summer’s anger, caught under a stern look so harsh it seems green fields of seed corn might burst aflame.

I come alone, or with my wife, or with a friend, riding my road bike for the challenge of the Southern Indiana hills and the peacefulness inherent alongside the Whitewater River and in nearby wooded valleys.

Escaping my usual training routes, I drive the hour to Metamora, parking adjacent to the Whitewater Canal. But unlike the tourists, I don’t walk the streets of the make-believe, picture-postcard town built on homemade fudge and hand-dipped candles. My calling is beyond the storefronts, miles away, down bits of countryside with lyrical names — Snail Creek Road, Pipe Creek Road, Haytown Hills Road.

It’s along Levee Road, just outside of Brookville, having crossed high over the river on a span of concrete, that I move closer to the Whitewater. Not far from town, the tributary sidles up to the road, as if needing a closer look at the world beyond its banks, at the people who travel quickly past on a strip of stone. It’s here I stop to look back at the water.

As a writer, I should be able to explain what I see, what I feel, but there are no words.

In such a place as this, no doubt drawn by a similar force, Theodore Clement Steele set up his canvas, arranged his paints, and grabbed hold of the river before him, clenching it in a tight fist, refusing to let the water drain through his fingers. He came with pallet and easel for the same reason I come on my bike. It’s more than just the beauty of the place. It’s the feeling of sanctuary.

T.C. Steele was here in 1897, when summer’s thirst drank the channel shallow. The resulting painting, On the White Water Sands, shows intermittent pools, water only ankle deep in spots, the slow, lazy meandering of a silted channel dropped amidst a landscape in the emeralds of August.

I’ve stood there — maybe not the exact spot in the painting, but I’ve been along waters with emotional currents so strong that, like Steele, I’ve stopped and nodded to myself, having found a picture-perfect place — next to the Whitewater, straddling my road bike; in the middle of the Big Blue, standing under a canopy of sycamore trees; over the Wabash, balanced on a steel cable, not five miles from where I grew up; and from the banks of the Ohio, the Delta Queen steaming past.

Steele’s fascination for the river — the Whitewater, any water — can still be sensed in his paintings. Those of us privileged enough to have lived and played near those tributaries understand.

Pictured above: On the White Water Sands by Theodore Clement Steele (Indiana, 1847-1926), oil on canvas, 22 by 28 inches, signed and dated lower right, T.C. Steele, ’97, titled on a tag verso, depicting a landscape near Brookville, Indiana, was sold for $58,800 (with buyer’s premium) on September 29, 2011, by Wickliff Auctioneers of Carmel, Indiana.

For your information: Nature is a frequent subject of my other other blog, Bicycle Eyes, which chronicles my experiences as a distance runner and cyclist.

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