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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.


    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I think part of what makes a waterfall so beautiful is our primal connection to it, our ancestral memories if you will, which don't work the way normal memories do but pull us towards our beginnings, in a way a carpet does not. Water is in us; we started out in water, first as unicellular life, then in our mother's womb, and then in our very cells. We cannot underestimate where we came from, and the very physical particularities of that connection; it is not a reduction, but a reminder that we are not in a vacuum, that we may have free will, but the umbilical cords of our evolution will call to us like whale songs through the dark oceans of our consciousness. Our appreciation of waterfalls, then, is not a consequence of civilization but a memory, a reminder, to not take ourselves or the processes through which we became ourselves for granted.


    8/24/08, 6:17 AM  
    Blogger American Puzzle said...

    A philosophical poser, indeed. I like "Me's" answer above. This is an excellent question - why is it that we are drawn to certain things we perceive as beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring? But earth-based phenomena in particular. As for me, I have the same reaction to the ocean as I do to waterfalls - even small lakes, ponds, and rivers to some extent. When I hike, I always seek out the trail with a body of water in some form...but why do I do this? I have no idea - I feel drawn to seek out and observe water, but am not drawn to stand under the fall or play in the lake. The mystery and constancy attract me - in addition to rocks and earth, the water connects me (or any individual) as a human to our interconnected past. We are so dependent on this land and especially water, that dependence likely works its way through our subconscious to become fascination and admiration on the surface. Maybe. :P Or maybe there's an element of fear in our fascination - water, especially waterfalls and the ocean, are uncontrollable by us...anything we can't control fascinates us. Great questions and really enjoyable to read - thanks for sharing! :)

    8/27/08, 3:41 PM  

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