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Waterfall with a steep drop and a rainbow in front.


The Falls

by Ken Sanes

These are the falls I used to visit as a child. The water would come rushing down, just like this, and I would stand and stare at it, transfixed. I usually positioned myself at the top, and watched as the sheet of water traveled over the rock, then poured as whitewater into the river. After a while, Iíd follow the twisting path away from the roar of the falls, dodging boulders all the way down to the river, where I listened to the rush of water disappear into the forest. ďI wonder where it all comes from?Ē I asked one bright spring day when the falls were driven by an even more powerful current than usual. ďIf you use your imagination,Ē my father responded, ďyou can hear an angry herd as it is stampeding across the hard ground.Ē Then he paused for a moment and continued: ďListen closely to what Iím going to tell you. And remember it when youíre older. I promise you, it will mean something to you then.Ē As he spoke, he suddenly stretched out his arms like he was presenting the trees and the water and the sky to me in a single gesture: ďAll of this is a miracle surpassing our imagination,Ē he said. ďIt is a sign of the ineffable in nature. If you can find a way to open yourself up to it, you will see that it is no accident, any more than the symphony we listened to on the way here in the car is an accident.Ē

Ineffable. I thought that was a good word. And I pictured him standing there, his arms spread out like a prophet, every time I used it.

But what he told me was wrong. Or letís just say that it turned out not to be a useful guide to the world. After all, the falls arenít really like a stampede and nature certainly hasnít been orchestrated like a symphony. False comparisons like this are just a byproduct of the way our brains work, because evolution has equipped us to see the similarities between things. Unfortunately, the world is full of people like my father who fall for these mistakes in thinking and end up seeing a universe in their own image, governed by a cosmic will or drenched in other meanings that don't really exist. Well, itís time for us to wake up and recognize that the metaphors we create for poetic effect and the myths we believe in donít actually describe anything. They just trap us in an imaginary world, haunted by our own sense of good and evil. In the end, it doesnít matter what the poets sing -- or what fathers tell impressionable children Ė nothing can usher us back into the dream of our lost paradise.

Fortunately, science has revealed the real force behind the universe. It is quantity, shorn of all subjective ornament. And the only sign revealing the hidden truth of the world is the equal sign we live on the two sides of. These are the real equations that reveal the connection between things -- not the poetic comparison of superficial similarities -- whether it is the ďroarĒ of all those molecules of H2O, driven by gravity, or the movement of the stars. Believe me, I know something about this since Iíve spent my career in the antiseptic halls of science. It is my job to sterilize the search for truth of all sources of contamination, especially the human element. Although my father didnít live to see it, I even produced a few measurements myself that moved us a little closer to solving the mysteries of nature, which will one day give us the power to really make it more hospitable to humanity.

This is the truth about the world that can be discerned by anyone who is willing to see it. It is a place where life happens and death happens. Thatís all. My son, for example, died from brain cancer. He wasted away right in front of us, and there wasnít anything we could do to help him. He was six, looking at us from his bed with those eyes, because he knew he was going to die. Six. Then I was sorry I didnít take him here when I had the chance. So I lied and said we would have a reunion in heaven and visit a waterfall where the water streams over the curve of a cloud, bumping down itís uneven cloudy puffs until it falls to a pool in a cloud below it. That helped, but only a little. And my wife and I were left without our only child. Life happened to us. And death happened. Thatís all. Then we buried him in his favorite astronomy pajamas, with pictures of the stars and planets on them, laid out with his eyes closed like he was in bed for the night. At a moment like that, we can be forgiven for disguising the cold externality of nature with the semblance of a human world. But the universe didnít weep for him and it doesnít weep for us now. Our feelings were our own and they will die with us.

Yes, I know, there are thoughtful people who disagree with me. They will tell you that the brain is the part of the universe that transforms math into art and love. And truth, too, I suppose. In their version of life, the lone sparrow, perched on a branch, singing a melody against the roar of the falls, is still doing something connected to attracting a mate and announcing its territory. But thatís part of the beauty of it. And it is our role to complete it by appreciating its song.

Did I complete my father? Iíve never known how to answer that question. But Iíll say this: I think I know what he believed he saw when he looked at the rushing water and the silhouette of trees against the sky. He thought he saw the face of God. He never said it, and I didnít understand until I had a son that, maybe, he was seeing something that was real in its own way. Certainly he was seeing the power of nature. But maybe he was also seeing the face of his own love.


With a hat tip to "Persistent Explorer" by John Crowe Ransom.

Photo illustration of Vernal Fall is in the public domain, according to Wikimedia.

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