Wednesday, October 16, 2013

When Words Fail

You may have noticed.  I have certainly been aware of it.  In these posts, I talk around the topic a great deal. It takes me awhile to get to the point. Part of this may be a misconceived notion of how to entertain.  Part of it may just be that bit of postmodernism that I can’t help but have been tainted by—the belief that everything is context.  In order to get to the essence of something, one has to work through the layers of one’s expectations and perceptions, and in order to do that one has to sift out what your culture is telling/inspiring/allowing you to think.  Among academic types, I am a recalcitrant holdout, in that I still believe that there is Truth with a Capital T:  the objective factual essence of a thing.  However, I just don’t believe that I will ever know it, because I don’t have the brain power or soul wattage to scrape through all the layers of hopes and fears that I and others have covered the thing with.  In my opinion, this tedious fact is one of the reasons fundamentalism and revelation is so appealing.  Skip all the thinking effort and jump straight into Wisdom. Easy-peasy, with the added benefit that nobody can tell me I’m wrong.  It also explains, I think, certain schisms on the Supreme Court.
There is another reason for talking around a subject, however.  Words fail the subject.  It is one of points that Sam Keen makes in Apology for Wonder.  When we see something truly wonderous, we are speechless. Awe and ineffability.  It is a frustrating reality for a writer, for a poet.  It’s the reality contained in the cliché “A picture paints a thousand words.” 

Niagara Falls.  American Side.

So far on this trip I have experienced three places where I think it is futile to attempt to describe what I saw, experienced, and thought:  Niagara Falls, The Hopewell Rocks in the Bay of Fundy, and the autumn colors of New England, especially of Vermont.  Oh, I could try.  I could use words like “magnificent,” “fabulous,” “inconceivable,”  “tremendous.”  For one wonder, I could harness “thunder,” “roar,” “pearly mists,” “cascading,” “dangerous”;  for another I could coax “patient,” “persistent,”  “steadily creeping,” “inexorable”; and for the third I could color sentences with “God’s palette,” “dramatic,” “startling,” “crimsons,” “autumn’s harmomies in minor chords.”  I could, but it all seems like an empty exercise, tossing verbiage, like pasta, and seeing what sticks. 
Or I could pretend to describe the wondrous by enlisting facts.   Niagara Falls is a collection of three falls:  the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls on the American side, and the Horseshoe on the Canadian side.  The falls are just shocking when viewed from above from sidewalks from the American Side on Goat Island.  The amount of water tumbling over is just staggering.  Where does all that water come from?  Where does it go?  We know the answers to these questions.  The water is draining from Lake Erie and it flows into Lake Ontario which fills the St. Lawrence River, and thus to the Atlantic Ocean.  When the water is flowing at its strongest, over 6 million cubic feet of water rush over the falls each minute. But for someone who watches lazy shallow rivers in Texas, this amount of water is un-understandable.  Viewed from below, in one of the Maid of the Mists Tour boats, the American Falls lose something of their character because their descent is shortened by the large pile of bolders. The Canadian Horseshoe Falls, on the other hands, tumbles straight down more than 150 feet.   All this is interesting, but these words still do not convey the awe one feels in the presence of the Niagara Falls. 
Similarly, the changes in sea level produced by the high and low tides all along the Bay of Fundy is simply and purely an extreme natural behavior one cannot witness any place else.  When we drove from Bar Harbor to New Brunswick, we crossed the Canadian border at Calais/St. Stephens.  It had been raining most of the day.  We sat in line at the bridge crossing the St. Croix River and commented among ourselves in the car about how high the river was. 
“Boy, it must really be raining north of us and flooding the river!  This is crazy!”  We said.
After entering the country, we found the welcome center and in talking with the very helpful lady there, we learned that it was high tide.  “High tide?  It looks like a flood.”
Further north, along the coast, outside of Moncton, the Canadian government has set aside a Provincial Park to protect “The Rocks.”  Waller Grant learned of The Rocks because Captain Crunch read about them in his kid’s National Geographic Magazine.  We saw the pictures of the fifty foot mushroom shaped rocks ascending from a beach, trees growing from rock, the beach clear of water, the water risen to a  mushroom rock’s cap.  He wanted to go; we had to go.  But the photographs don’t do it justice.  To me, it was like walking around a movie set designed by Peter Jackson for a movie about fairies.   Giant fairies.  We arrived at 9:30 in the morning for low tide.  Walked around for a couple of hours.  Capatain Crunch danced on the shore.  I sat and meditated on one set stones at the edge of the beach and watched the water as it steadily rose and covered the stones.  Every hour the tide rises more than six feet.  On most days, the tide shifts 45 or more feet between low and high tides, the largest variation in the world.  After lunch, we returned and saw that the entire beach was under water, and the mushroom stalks were almost submerged. 

Somewhere between Weston and Springfield, Vermont

After two weeks in Bar Harbor, and a few days in Portland, we made it to Vermont.  The fact is that New England is world famous for the colors that the leaves produce in autumn.  The peculiar mix of the number and the number of types of trees, the soil, and the weather produces for a few weeks in the fall something that is fully aesthetically pleasing. Maples, birches, oaks, standing among the imperturbable pines, all experience a peculiar shift in photosynthesis when days shorten and weather turns crisp.  We found a cozy and fairly inexpensive campground outside Springfield, Vermont, a little off the regular track for “leaf peepers,” as I learned people like us, up only for “the season,” are called.  But we saw plenty of leaves and landscapes that looked like Manet painted mountains instead of Lilly ponds,  with trips to Waterbury for Ben and Jerry’s, to Weston for the Vermont Country Store, to Plymouth Notch for Calvin Coolidge’s Birthplace, to Norwich and West Hartford for a hike on the Appalachian Trail,    After a week in the trees, we still hadn’t had enough and Knightsmama, indulging a little fantasy of living in Vermont full time, was asking people just how cold it actually gets in the winter.   
A final word, when words just won’t do:  One obvious fact is that each of these natural sites and events are tourist attractions.  Sometimes, I don’t think we realize what this fact means.  Niagara Falls, The Rocks at the Bay of Fundy, and the Autumn Leaves in New England are visited, are witnessed, by thousands of us human beings each year.  Millions, I suppose, each decade.  First, this tells me that we are a very mobile species.  But this is not your typical life and death behavior—following the buffalo, moving from one water source to another.  So second, we humans have a very deep need to be stunned to silence by nature.  If we hated it or were afraid of it, or were fully comfortable without seeing it, we wouldn’t go. 
We have a place in us, in our souls, I suppose, that needs to be filled with natural wonder.  We need to stand at the banks of a river, like the Niagara, and just look and listen to the power of water expressed as a roar, a mist, and a rainbow. We need to walk around in sticky mud beneath bizarre, giant rock formations and watch a six-hour drama of water rising over forty feet and a six-hour drama of water lowering forty feet.  We want to stand, ourselves, in the midst of the bizarre, outlandish landscape that this daily drama creates through the even slower drama of friction and erosion.  We have a hunger to travel hundreds of miles, perhaps, just to look at rolling mountains, at trees that daub the hills with shades of green, yellow, orange, and red. To stare, mouth open, at a creek, a stream, a river, exposed granite, piles of stones forming meandering walls, and those trees and their stupendous leaves signaling a time to turn inward, the last moment of beneficent nature for several months.  I must see this.  I must pull the car off the side of the road, turn it off, get out, and stand by a steel railing so I won’t fall, and stare in silence.  

Soundtrack.  Nat King Cole:  "Autumn Leaves."

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