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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Wednesday, August 20, 2008

    Reflections on the beauty of waterfalls

    Why are waterfalls so pleasing to the senses? As they noisily rush over a precipice of land, crashing to the surface below, the air cooler where the water rushes, why are they so beautiful? What makes the experience different than sitting here at my laptop, the keys clicking, on a green recliner, the noise of construction and television in the background? Would it matter if the waterfall experience were more common than the sitting at the laptop experience? Is there something that just happens at a waterfall that mystically connects us with the thing? Is it the shared consensus that waterfalls simply must be more beautiful?

    I love waterfalls, like Union Falls and its 265 foot drop, deep within Yellowstone's backcountry, the fall happening right where two bodies of water flow into each other. When I saw this waterfall and took this picture 10 years ago, there were a couple of other hikers hanging by who soon left. I was alone. No one close to me in life had ever seen Union Falls. There was a feeling of awe but also one of loneliness. The sense of wonder was something I might be able to convey but not the fullness of the beauty, the uniqueness of the sense experience, this waterfall flowing like one imagines an angel's head of hair. In fact, I think I might think Union Falls more beautiful but never having seen an angel's head of hair, all I can point to in describing it this way is the unspeakable nature of this fall to those who can only but imagine.

    Waterfalls, then, must be in part beautiful based on something in the sense experience. The loneliness of the feeling is not simply a function of uniqueness. It's a matter of a uniqueness that can't be shared because of what it is. Beauty, then, at least in part must touch us in a particular way. But, what way is it? What is it that brings person after person to the Lower and Upper Falls in Yellowstone, for instance, to admire them often at the expense of everything else around. In the parking lot for Uncle Tom's Trail, people look out at the Upper Falls - so mesmerized they are, they often miss the other beautiful fall visible between the trees on the right. What draws people in? What is so pleasing about waterfalls?

    I don't have an answer. We are more likely to get at some of the aspects of what we call beautiful than we are to understand what makes this type of thing so often admired. What is it about the combination of power, grace, uniqueness that evokes such pleasure? We have a better understanding of why certain foods, drinks, and drugs evoke certain things in us. But, we cannot really reduce a waterfall, can we? It is not simply a collection of molecules, of atoms, and light. It is signified only by its function. It must have water, but it's water functioning in a certain way. Yet, this unique function does something inside of us that is often as consistent as H2O does inside our bodies when we are thirsty. It's in fact often more satisfying than a drink of water. Water that we drink fills a need but rarely uplifts us the way that water flowing over a cliff does.

    So, we can gather from these considerations that beauty is not simply an exercise in reduction. It seems highly unlikely that we can reduce the beauty of a waterfall by understanding the physics of the human being who experiences the fall. Perhaps, we can deny the beauty altogether, but then we must have some explanation for the shared phenomena. It would be just as highly unlikely if the beauty of a waterfall was just as much a phantom as it would be to say that my sitting here writing did not evoke the same kind of aesthetic pleasure. We cannot deny that there is a distinction, but what is the nature of the distinction? There are a few people in life who think I am attractive, but I have no illusion of thinking that the sight of me could compete with the sight of Niagara Falls, even overrun by more tourists than usual. We cannot reduce that real difference out of existence.

    All of this only makes the subject more perplexing. If the beauty of waterfalls comes in part from the sensing of the waterfall but cannot be explained simply by explaining the sensations of the person experiencing it, we are forced to see the light shimmer on the water and hear the roar of it all that much more. That is, unless the waterfall has been frozen by the winter such that it's almost impossible to tell that a waterfall even exists? Has the beauty dissipated, or has it been enhanced just that much more by the power of winter? Is beauty even something that we can so easily quantify, as though we are measuring teaspoons of sugar?

    Again, these are questions I have little insight into. I can say that sitting under the mist of Tower Fall in silence broken only by the fall in a darkness that made seeing the fall nearly impossible was perhaps a more profound experience for me than it is seeing the fall from the top of the trail now washed out making my past experience next to impossible to repeat. Certainly, the waterfall had something to do with the power of the experience, and it didn't necessarily require that it be seen. The waterfall did not exist alone outside of a life context, but it also was more than simply an accidental part of it. The beauty of Tower Fall was essential to the moment, even if pegging that beauty down seems to be an illusory exercise.

    Waterfalls seem also to be beautiful because they, for whatever reason, give us an almost endless amount of fodder for musing about them. They inspire musings like this. I'm not musing about the fabric in the carpet, though I might. I could put a piece of fabric under a microscope and discover a universe unto itself. I could see fabric through different colored glasses, touch the fabric, contemplate the fabric in the dark, compare other fabrics. The fabric is no less infinite in some respects, but what keeps me from the same kind of inspiration? Why is there a knowing sense that the waterfall is indeed more beautiful, even if I'm only talking about waterfalls in general? Certainly, we could be wrong. We could start talking about the beauty of different races, different genders, different kinds of destructive weaponry, and we would rightly be called idiots. Yet, we know that waterfalls are more beautiful than pieces of fabric and mere grains of sand. If we are wrong about that, then what explains our prejudice? What has led us astray? We can understand that arrogance and the self righteous need for power explains racism; nothing comparable can explain our attraction to waterfalls over other types of things. What then is it?

    Waterfalls are so beautiful to us that even artificial waterfalls can often inspire us.

    Anyhow, of course, I am thinking about more than waterfalls. I'm trying to understand my experience, what is it that touches me, what is it that doesn't, and why? I'm trying to understand loneliness and intimacy and what fills me up? What is it about our sexual connection that means something so different to us than a warm embrace or a handshake? What is it about this lonely moment writing that can drive me to such distraction whereas a lonely moment in front of Union Falls can be mostly satisfying and perhaps a little less lonely than it was? And, really, what will allow my next experience with a waterfall to be even richer than it already is?

    I don't know the answers to these things, but it would be beautiful if we could explore this much more. Why would it be? Well, that's part of the question.

    Thursday, August 07, 2008

    Yellowstone buffalo: Borders, migration, and the privileged lords

    The map on the left, courtesy of Buffalo Field Campaign, shows bison herds and migrations inside of and outside of Yellowstone National Park. All the problems with and all the inspiration we have of buffalo herds must take these migrations into account.

    Humans have an issue with migration because the variance in movement often comes against boundaries that humans have set up. Many Americans have trouble with the migration of people, especially from Mexico, who are often escaping the economic boundaries placed on their own existence by global trade policies - many of them promoted by American politicians. Boundaries create boundaries, and the consequences of the boundaries often create unexpected movements. In 1872, Congress set aside Yellowstone National Park, with boundaries that have not changed a great deal since then. No one could communicate with the animals those boundaries, but each animal has had its movement impacted by those boundaries and others.

    Bison, in particular, are bound by the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, by the movements of its visitors, of its vehicles, but they are also bound by other policy considerations. They are bound by those who control lands both public and private. They are prevented from moving by those who put the values of livestock industry interests ahead of their movements -just as the park boundary prevents those interests from moving cattle and other livestock. They are physically prevented by park rangers and agents from Montana's Department of Livestock, who make sure that bison stay out of Montana. Yet, the boundaries also set up the terms of migration. Because bison need to move by the boundaries of winter, of the need to eat, they move. They move across boundaries.

    In that context, some of the bounded entities within the boundary of the United States, groups with very conflicting missions, have been thrust together to manage the movements of bison and to determine their fate. The bounded partners created a new bounding document--one called adaptive because presumably the boundaries can shift, though how and why is a mystery - called the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). With that, the lords of the border - the ICE of Yellowstone - enforce a reality on buffalo, who continue to roam as they must.

    And, what a mess it has been! More bison were killed last winter (1,613) than at any time since the 19th century. More than half the herds in Yellowstone from the previous fall are now dead, some killed because they could not move away from the winter. Now, the partners of the IBMP have been meeting the past couple days here in Bozeman to consider the parameters of their torture and death, to determine the appropriate ways to implement the plan without ever considering whether the border that has been set up makes any sense at all.

    Of course, borders of a kind are necessary. To type these words, I am creating all kinds of borders, choosing words that might not have been otherwise and placing them in a space, all with their own boundaries. I am the lord of this essay; I presume to make my point. If life is motion, and motion arises from and creates borders, then borders are necessary. However, the imposition of borders without reason is irrational. That is, it makes no sense to keep beings from pursuing their own survival because of a perceived need to protect the integrity of a nation state or the integrity of an allotted use of private or public land. All of that is to protect an entitlement or privilege for which there is no good reason to presume at the cost of that freedom. Borders in a physical sense are necessary, but as means to defend the arrogance of arbitrarily defined entitlement, they are disgusting.

    Is it not enough that we are bound by the four seasons, by the fact that we will die, by time and space? Why do we insist on enforcing boundaries the way we do?

    I was only able to attend the IBMP meeting for an hour, and even then, I could not hear more than a few minutes of anything because I was bound by the noise of my 10-month-old son. In fact, I was told that the noises from him that I labored to keep from distracting the meeting in fact had been at least somewhat distracting. My son's movements bounded me and bounded others, and so I moved elsewhere. It was entitlement and privilege that allowed me to be there at all; it would have been for nothing to have stayed under those circumstances. I removed the boundary and left. Yet, there are no similar qualms about disrupting the lives of so many buffalo. What passes for rational discourse among the pre-ordained stakeholders is actually the most arrogant noise of all on the land north and west of Yellowstone. If I had been more ornery, I would have felt perfectly justified not only to let my son cry to stop the meeting but also to join in the chorus myself - to disrupt the moment, to bring people into the primal moment of our physical limitations, to insist on a boundary in that meeting to stop what they will do. But, of course, they will enforce those boundaries anyhow. At this time and place, it was not for me to presume. But, they presume all the more.

    What a privilege it is to stand over an entire border and be able to build and move fences, to deal so flippantly with the lives who are so bound by one's decisions. What a magnificent and deadly power that the wildlife manager has, that the livestock owner, the World Bank president, and the general all have. And, what a privilege I have as well in the domain where I set borders and where lives are influenced by my every action. But, why are we so arrogant, so non-chalant? The IBMP partners met as though it were just another meeting, just something that had to be done. It wasn't even news - at least not yesterday. We are so numb to this power, this abuse of power, that we think nothing of it. We don't think anything of what we run over, who we run over, and we're always happy to point the finger elsewhere.

    But, what of us? Is our silence not complicity? Is our inability to see the buffalo issue beyond the bonds of buffalo not also a kind of complicity? We are constantly stomping things, erecting borders, and we do so with the same arrogance of entitlement. And, we are almost bound to do so in order to survive the winters in our world.

    I still believe that undoing all this is possible if we will own up to it, talk with each other, and collaborate together in resistance against the kinds of borders all of us are bound to set up. Resistance is not simply against what's not us, it's also resistance against ourselves. We all bleed with the boundaries of nationalism and capitalism, and we are enforcers of it.

    But, deep down, we are still humans, we still cry, we still make uncomfortable noises, we still move the way the buffalo do. If we can make those noises, that is, collaborate together, then we can do something for ourselves, others, and buffalo. That's what I've committed my life to doing. Who will join us? I come with my own baggage and limits; so do you. But, let's work. Because right now, I can't tell you that these IBMP people aren't going to keep up their arrogance; it goes unchecked. But together, we can at least tear down these fences.